Small allies bear close watching. We now know that, earlier this year, U.S. diplomats saw tensions rising between Georgia and Russia over the disputed enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and recognized that Washington had few levers to pull should the situation get out of hand. So they advised Georgian officials not to provoke the growling bear. But the cautionary message was weak and undercut by other administration signals of strong backing for Tbilisi.
Eventually, the Georgian government took matters into its own hands, Russia got the pretext it sought for some calculated thuggery, and the result was a geopolitical fiasco that left everybody worse off.
The crisis was a classic example of what economists call "moral hazard" -- the fact that offering insurance to somebody often leads them to take greater risks than they otherwise would. If Georgia had not been led to believe that the United States might back it in a crisis, it probably would have played its hand more carefully -- and whatever compromises it might have had to make, it would have been better off as a result. This sort of thing happens all the time, and shows why great powers need to be careful lest their dependents embroil them in unnecessary conflicts.
Ironically, the Bush administration sometimes demonstrates that it understands well both the problem and the solution -- as can be seen by its skillful handling of Taiwan, another plucky little democracy embroiled in a territorial dispute with a revanchist authoritarian neighbor.
Ever since President Nixon's opening to China, Taiwan has posed a quandary for American foreign policy. The mainland considers it a renegade province waiting to be retaken, but the United States has strong historical, moral and practical ties to Taiwan's thriving capitalist democracy. Successive U.S. administrations have finessed the problem by kicking the can down the road, hoping that eventually the two local parties might agree on a peaceful solution. Until then, Washington's policy of "strategic ambiguity" is designed to deter both sides from radical moves that might upset the status quo and trigger a war.
In practice, this means signaling to China that Washington will help Taiwan defend itself against an unprovoked attack while simultaneously making sure Taiwan avoids serious provocations (such as a formal declaration of independence). The policy is somewhere between pure realpolitik (which would control risks by cutting loose a strategic nuisance) and pure idealism (which would grant a vibrant democracy routine rights of self-determination regardless of the consequences). It is actually a fine example of the distinctive "American realism" that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sometimes touts.
Interestingly, when neoconservatives pushed to overturn the policy in favor of a more full-throated and unconditional support of Taiwan, the Bush administration paid them little heed. And when Taiwan seemed on the verge of declaring independence a few years ago, the Bush team came down hard behind the scenes to stop the move in its tracks -- something that helps explain why this perennial flash point has been absent from newspaper front pages in recent years.
Such a "tough love" approach to independent-minded junior partners has often been a valued part of the American diplomatic arsenal, deployed by policymakers determined to keep control over sensitive situations. In 1973, for example, the Nixon administration kept Israel from destroying the surrounded Egyptian 3rd Army at the end of the Yom Kippur War, thus avoiding a superpower confrontation while paving the way for an eventual settlement. And in 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration restrained Israel from retaliating for Iraqi missile strikes during the Persian Gulf War, thus keeping its broad coalition intact throughout the conflict.
Bush 41's move is particularly instructive. In addition to giving the Israelis some Patriot missiles to shoot down the incoming Scud missiles, Washington refused to provide Israel with the codes that would have allowed its planes to cross safely over American-controlled "no-fly-zone" airspace in order to strike Iraq. Experts disagree about whether it would be just as easy to prevent Israel from launching a rogue attack on the Iranian nuclear program today, but the precedent is clear: Should the U.S. and Israel disagree about the wisdom of a preventive counter-proliferation strike, the latter's view need not prevail.
Public discourse about foreign policy tends to be simplistic to the point of caricature -- seeing it as a matter of separating good guys from bad guys, friends from enemies, and supporting the former while confronting the latter. This was captured perfectly in vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin's recent interview with Charlie Gibson on ABC. Pressed about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran, she gave the same answer three times in a row: "We are friends with Israel, and I don't think we should second-guess the measures that Israel has to take to defend themselves and for their security."
But professionals know that the real world is often more complex, that nations have differing interests, and major powers have to be wary about letting even friendly good guys lead them down a slippery slope into trouble. That is why, contra Palin, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen have been quietly doing what they can this year to block the possibility of an independent Israeli strike against Iran, to the dismay of many in the Israeli security establishment.
It is only natural for small democratic states living in bad neighborhoods to seek American support and protection, and in certain cases it is entirely appropriate for the United States to give it to them. But when it chooses to do so, the U.S. should make clear that along with the backing comes the responsibility to act prudently -- and should, without sentiment, use all the tools at its disposal to enforce the deal. The Bush 43 team has recognized this in Asia but forgot it in the Caucasus. How forcefully it would handle a third such case in the Middle East during its final months remains unclear.
Gideon Rose is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.