Pass the tinfoil:

* The State Department gave Russia the green light to go into South Ossetia if Georgia made a big move, thinking that the Russians had made an implied commitment to stay out of Georgia proper. But State never told the Georgian government.

* Knowing that the Russians were baiting Saakashvili, State kept telling the Georgians to keep cool. Nonetheless, no one who works for the U.S. government had any advance warning of Saakashvili’s decision to advance on Tskhinvali. The U.S. advisers attached to the Georgian Army were kept in the dark, and Saakashvili didn’t give Washington a heads-up about his big gamble. (Query: Did “Washington” include Scheunemann and McCain?)

* Our satellites were so busy watching Pakistan that we didn’t notice Russian tanks massing in North Ossetia.

Yes, you read all of that right. Jonathan Landay of McClatchy, which has been pound-for-pound the best news organization in the U.S. since 2001, has the gory details, and doesn’t even front them in a very businesslike story with no heavy breathing. To my eye, that gives it extra credibility compared to a story where the lead is a triumphant “gotcha!”.

I’ve pasted the whole thing in below the fold, with the dynamite highlighted.

In the immortal words of Casey Stengel, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

If Bill Clinton were still President and the Republicans still controlled Congress, I think they’d skip the impeachment hearings and proceed directly to a Bill of Attainder. As Kevin Drum says, this explains why the Beloved Leader stayed in Beijing and the Secretary of State stayed on vacation as the Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia; that wasn’t actually a surprise. The only surprise was that the tanks didn’t stop at the provincial border.

Clearly, if we were going to tell the Russians they were free to clobber the Georgians, we should have told the Georgians we’d told the Russians that. “Please be restrained” isn’t at all the same thing as “You’re on your own, buddy.” If Saakashvili had known that the Russians had the green light from us, he wouldn’t have tried to take Tskhinvali.

Saakashvili must have completely misread the situation in Washington; his play depended on the Russians not doing what our State Department apparently had an “understanding” with the Russians that they would do. Maybe he was gambling (correctly) that the Russians would break the understanding and (incorrectly) that Washington would do something about it. He might well have overestimated how much actual pull his contractor Scheunemann and his buddy McCain had, or maybe he got different signals from the White House than his underlings got from State.

Either way, it’s a cock-up of epic proportions, leading to a huge win for Putin (he now gets to look “reasonable” for not insisting on toppling the Georgian government or holding any territory in Georgia proper while claiming everything else he could possibly have wanted from the situation) and a huge black eye for the U.S.

Hearings, please.

Update The NY Times weighs in, late and lame, but more or less confirming the “mixed message” theme. The Georgians were told not to attack, but harbored hopes that if Russia counter-attacked we’d support them. “The Georgians figured it was better to ask forgiveness later, but not ask for permission first,” said one administration official. “It was a decision on their part. They knew we would say ‘no.’ ” Right. So why didn’t it occur to someone in Washington to tell Saakashvili’s folks that forgiveness would not be forthcoming.

No hint in the Times story of what if anything American diplomats said to Russia, which is the explosive part of the McClatchy story, and no acknowledgement that McClatchy had scored the news-beat. A pretty shabby performance by the Times.

Posted on Mon, Aug. 11, 2008

U.S. knew Georgia trouble was coming, but couldn’t stop it

Jonathan S. Landay | McClatchy Newspapers

last updated: August 12, 2008 08:16:02 AM

WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials, worried by what they saw as a series of provocative Russian actions, repeatedly warned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to avoid giving the Kremlin an excuse to intervene in his country militarily, U.S. officials said Monday.

But in the end, the warnings failed to stop the Georgian president — a Bush favorite — from launching an attack last week that on Monday seemed likely to end not only in his country’s military humiliation but complete occupation by Russian forces.

The cost of the fighting in lives has yet to be tallied. But President Bush on Monday made it clear that the outcome was sure to mark a turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. It might also prove costly for the West’s relationship with the budding democracies of Eastern Europe, which now must contemplate a world where the United States could do little to protect a close ally in the face of a determined Russian onslaught.

“Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people,” President Bush proclaimed after returning from China. “Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.”

“These actions jeopardize Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe,” Bush said. “It’s time for Russia to be true to its word to act to end this crisis.”

Pentagon officials said that despite having 130 trainers assigned to Georgia, they had no advance notice of Georgia’s sudden move last Thursday to send thousands of Georgian troops into South Ossetia to capture that province’s capital, Tskhinvali.

Not only did the U.S. troops working alongside their Georgian counterparts not see any signs of an impending invasion, Georgian officials did not notify the U.S. military before the incursion, a senior U.S. defense official told McClatchy.

But the Bush administration had fretted for months over what officials saw as intensifying Russian moves that it feared were aimed at provoking Georgia into a conflict over South Ossetia or Abkhazia, another secessionist province.

Russia has been angry over Georgia’s close links with Washington, and has been determined to stop the admission to NATO of its former vassal, which is located on strategic energy and transportation routes to Central Asia.

The Russian actions against Georgia “seemed designed to provoke a Georgian over-reaction,” said a senior U.S. official. “We have always counseled restraint to the Georgians.”

Some experts, however, wondered whether the administration might have inadvertently sent Saakashvili mixed messages that would have led him to believe he could count on U.S. support if he got into trouble.

Bush lavished praise on the U.S.-educated Georgian leader as a “beacon of democracy.” He gave military training and equipment to Georgia, which supplied the third-largest contingent to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and had promised NATO membership, they said. He visited the country in 2005 and addressed a huge crowd from the same podium as Saakashvili.

“The Russians have clearly overreacted but President Saakashvili . . . for some reason seems to think he has a hall pass from this administration,” said former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

U.S. officials had been warning of Russian actions designed to provoke Georgia for months.

In June, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Russia’s “unremitting” political and economic pressure included closing its border with Georgia, suspending air and transportation links, imposing an embargo on Georgian agricultural exports and allowing Russian banks to operate “virtually unregulated” with unlicensed Abkhazian banks.

Earlier this year, he said, Russia strengthened official ties with separatist leaders in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, shot down an unmanned Georgian surveillance drone, sent heavy combat troops with artillery as peacekeepers to Abkhazia and dispatched military personnel to repair a rail line without Georgia’s permission.

He also said senior Russian officials were assigned to the internationally unrecognized self-declared governments in the two enclaves and that senior Russian military officers operated with the separatists’ military forces.

The senior U.S. official said the Russians had also dragged their feet on a recent German-led effort to head off a conflict.

A “parade” of U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visited Tbilisi to urge Saakashvili to avoid giving the Kremlin to act, a State Department officials said.

At the same time, U.S. officials said that they believed they had an understanding with Russia that any response to Georgian military action would be limited to South Ossetia.

“We knew they were going to go crack heads. We told them again and again not to do this,” the State Department official said. “We thought we had an understanding with the Russians that any response would be South Ossetia-focused. Clearly it’s not.”

One problem in under-estimating the Russian response, another U.S. official said, was “a dearth of intelligence assets in the region.”

U.S. “national technical means,” the official name for spy satellites and other technology, are “pretty well consumed by Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan,” the official said, and there was only limited monitoring of Russian military movements toward the Georgian border.

Additionally, the United States had lost access to vital information when Russia dropped out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in December to protest U.S. plans to build missile defense sites in Europe.

Under the treaty, Russia had been required to exchange reports on troop, armor and aircraft deployments with the United States and other members on a monthly basis. But once Russia dropped out, that information was no longer available.

“I wouldn’t say we were blind,” the official said. “I would say that we mostly were focused elsewhere, unlike during the Cold War, when we’d see a single Soviet armor battalion move. So, yes, the size and scope of the Russian move has come as something of a surprise.”

Now, the United States is left with few options for countering what it calls Russia’s “disproportionate” response to Georgia if the Kremlin persists in spurning a U.S.-backed European plan calling for a ceasefire, a pullback of all forces, an accord on the non-use of force and deployment of international monitors.

The delicacy of the situation was underscored by the U.S. decision to leave its military advisers in Georgia, though, with Georgia’s troops no longer in Iraq, there was little for the advisers to do.

“While their utility in country may be very limited, removing them might inadvertently signal to the world that we are abandoning our ally, which we most certainly are not,” said a senior U.S. military official.

(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com