When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Georgia next month, she'll be paying some overdue attention to a country that has felt somewhat neglected by the Obama administration.
Following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, then-candidate Obama sent future Vice President Joe Biden to Tbilisi to express solidarity with his old friend Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Candidate Obama was trying to match the fervor of John McCain, another one of Saakashvili's old friends, who criticized Obama for not immediately taking Georgia's side in the dispute.
After assuming office, the administration instituted a freeze of military assistance to Georgia, just as that country was getting ready to deploy a brigade of troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Obama's outreach to Russia pressed forward while the Russians cemented their military presence in the disputed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and neglected to fulfill their obligations under the agreement they signed at the end of the conflict.
The National Security Council's senior director for Russia, Michael McFaul, defended the Obama administration's Georgia policy this week at a meeting at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
McFaul's main point was that the Obama administration had made a decision to de-link its drive to improve relations with Russia, the famous "reset button," from its Georgia policy. He said the administration wanted to pursue reset initiatives, like the civilian nuclear agreement that President Dmitry Medvedev is coming to Washington later this month in part to discuss, regardless of what was happening with the Russia-Georgia situation.
"It is a part of our strategy to deliberately avoid linkage between issue areas that have nothing to do with each other," McFaul said. "We don't think it's effective."
Specifically, McFaul said that the administration was not seeking to make the civil-nuclear deal contingent upon Russia ending what he described as its "occupation of Georgia," as some in Congress advocate. (Russia insists that its troops are protecting newly sovereign states, though few other countries recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Georgia claims the breakaway republics as sovereign territory.)
"That doesn't mean we're ignoring Georgia," McFaul said. "We're doing these things in parallel, but we're not linking them."
Nor, said McFaul, would the United States go along with Moscow's attempts to link Georgia to Russian cooperation on other issues, such as U.N. sanctions on Iran. "We're not throwing the Georgians under a bus in the name of a U.N. Security Council resolution. That was a proposition put to us a long time ago."
McFaul admitted, however, that there has been zero progress in advancing the objective of getting Russia to remove troops from Georgia.
"Is it a foreign policy objective of the Obama administration to help end Russia's occupation of Georgia in a peaceful manner and restore Georgia's territorial integrity? Absolutely yes," he said. "Have we made progress on the central objective? My answer is no. We haven't. That's the truth."
For the record, McFaul's portfolio at the NSC doesn't actually include Georgia. That falls to Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the senior director for Europe. Sources close to the issue say the Georgians deal mostly with McFaul anyway, but observers still wonder whether it wouldn't be better to join the two issues, as the Pentagon does.
Experts said the delinking of the issues in public is pragmatic, since there is little chance the U.S. would be able to move the Russians out of Georgia anyway.
"That's a wise way of doing it, because solving the Georgia problem within the context of arms control negotiations is just not realistic," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "That's just the way it is. There's not much we can do on Georgia."
But the Clinton trip could go a long way in making the Georgians feel they are getting enough attention from the Obama administration. "They want to be seen as a loyal, Western-oriented outpost," he said.
Clinton should be ready to hear some uncomfortably harsh anti-Russian rhetoric when she gets to the podium next to Saakashvili, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discovered back in 2008.
"Any U.S. official who goes to Georgia should know that the Georgian leadership, particularly Saakashvili, is going to talk badly about Russia," Petersen warned.