U.S. Military Role In Georgia Tricky

Since Russia's rout of the Georgian armed forces in August, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suggested that Washington secretly provoked the conflict. But the Americans wanted no such thing, according to Lt. Col. Robert Hamilton, who ran the U.S. military training program in Georgia until six weeks ago. (He's now on a year's fellowship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.) "At no time did the U.S. attempt to train or equip the Georgian armed forces for a conflict with Russia," he says. "In fact, the U.S. deliberately avoided training capabilities [that] were seen as too provocative" to Russia. That's one reason Georgia's troops crumpled so fast—precisely because their training didn't cover conventional-warfare topics like tanks, artillery and helicopters.

America's military involvement in Georgia began with a mission that was supposed to reduce Moscow's jitters. The Russians were complaining that Chechen rebels with suspected ties to Al Qaeda were holed up in Georgia's Pankesi Gorge. In 2002 the Pentagon stepped in, training and equipping Georgia's ragtag Army to clear out the unwelcome guests. After that mission ended in 2004, Georgia joined the Coalition in Iraq, and the training's focus shifted to counterinsurgency and peacekeeping duties.

Now U.S. military planners are facing two questions. Should America help rebuild Georgia's armed forces? And if so, should the focus be on combating a Russian threat? Moscow's potential reaction is only the first obstacle to new U.S. military aid to Georgia. More than that, however, the debacle in Georgia has exposed an issue that NATO has carefully swept aside for the past decade: how the alliance expects to defend its new members. Georgia is not a NATO member. But if America sets out to solidify Georgia's defenses, can it fail to do likewise for the 10 nations that have joined NATO since 1999?

Under Article 5 of the group's charter, the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on one member will be regarded as an attack on all. Even so, NEWSWEEK has learned, NATO didn't bother to formally assess any of the new members' defense needs before they joined. "The attitude was, the more the merrier," says retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe through the early years of this decade. "NATO didn't really look at the Article 5 part of it."

In fact, Wald adds, NATO actively dissuaded its new members from beefing up their defense capabilities. Romania and Bulgaria wanted to build modern air forces by buying several hundred top-of-the-line aircraft. "They were told, don't do that," he says. "They were advised they should concentrate on making a 'niche contribution.' Which meant counterterrorism and counterinsurgency forces to operate outside Europe." The Global War on Terror took priority over conventional defenses. But that was before Russia and Georgia raised the stakes.