U.S. Should Recognize South Ossetia

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The United States should recognize the independence of South Ossetia. Short of a major war, South Ossetia will never be part of Georgia again, and half of the country -- North Ossetia -- is already part of Russia. In addition, the Ossetians wish to be united under Russian rule, as any impartial, internationally monitored referendum would show.

This bold diplomatic gambit obviously could not be made by the current U.S. administration, which is itself very much a part of the problem. The Georgian invasion of South Ossetia was another White House fiasco, the Katrina of the Caucasus.

Georgia has real geostrategic importance -- the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the only route to bypass Russia in shipping oil and gas from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia to the West.

But even political moderates like John McLaughlin, host of "The McLaughlin Group," a Sunday morning talk show, recently predicted that we would soon discover that the United States gave Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili the green light to invade South Ossetia. Psyched by being second only to Britain in the number of troops fighting alongside the United States in Iraq, Georgia was also pumped up by the latest in military technology from the United States. Saakashvili felt so close to the current U.S. administration that he even named the highway from the airport into the capital after President George W. Bush, but we all know where that road leads.

Bush and Co. are not the only culprits. The war in Georgia simply brought to a head the worsening U.S.-Russian relationship. The problems in the relationship mostly stem from America's foreign policy and Russia's domestic policy. America's ill-conceived policy toward Russia flowed from its attitude of triumphalism, treating Russia like a conquered enemy. This led to three errors, two of which have their origins in the administration of Bill Clinton. First, after pledging not to, the United States bulldozed NATO eastward until 10 of its 26 members were either former Warsaw Pact countries or former Soviet republics. Second, the United States pushed for the BTC pipeline across Georgian territory when Russia was weak and not yet bullying its neighbors with its energy muscle. Third, the Bush plan to place interceptors in Poland to thwart an attack by Iran was technically dubious but guaranteed to be seen by Russia as a threatening encroachment.

Russia, for its part, lost the West's confidence by violating the holy trinity of democracy -- opposition parties, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary. The dirty tricks played on 2008 presidential candidates like chess champion Gary Kasparov, the slaying of critical journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and the rigged trial against oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky made the Putin regime look petty, vindictive and despotic. This will prove harder to correct than the defects of U.S. policy.

The advantage of a breakthrough move like recognizing South Ossetia is that it would give Russia what it insists it needs -- acknowledgement as a great power with serious interests in its region. It also would get the United States off the hypocrisy hook; if the United States can violate the borders of an ally as it has been doing in Pakistan, why can't Russia violate those of an adversary?

Another advantage of recognizing South Ossetia is that it would throw Russia on the defensive, requiring it to respond in kind -- for example, by retracting its recognition of Abkhazia's independence.

Russia's specific response is less important than achieving a transformation of the dialogue. U.S. efforts should not be concentrated on the tit-for-tat level of diplomacy. The United States needs to create a new Russia policy based on a redefining of NATO's role -- especially in Ukraine -- and of U.S. energy interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. After two slack and indulgent decades, it's time for some realpolitik again.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."