"Democracies don't go to war with each other."
That has been the conventional wisdom of a generation of political scientists, and it always sounded a bit too Utopian to me. I always believed that even nations with popularly elected governments would fight each other over matters of national interest. A nation's notion of what constitutes its national interest can be something as ephemeral as its culture, its historical place in the world, or even its self-respect. Easier to understand is protection of territorial integrity or access to vital resources--food, water, energy.
As I write this, Russian combat forces, at the direction of a popularly elected government, are executing an impressive and obviously long-planned invasion of the democratic nation of Georgia. The vital national interests at stake in this conflict--um, er, hmm. Got me.
What we do know about the roots of this conflict is that they are a tangle of cultural clashes dating back centuries. The battleground between Russia and Georgia is the crossroads territory of Ossetia. Russia conquered Ossetia in the 19th Century. Stalin's Soviet Union divided Ossetia between Russia and Georgia early in the 20th Century. North Ossetia became an autonomous sovereign republic of the Russian Federation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. South Ossetia fought for its independence from Georgia as the Soviet Union collapsed. Russian "peacekeepers" have monitored a cease-fire in the region since 1992. For the past several months Georgia has taken more and more aggressive actions toward South Ossetia in response to what Georgians claim is overt Russian meddling in the break-away province.
Looks to me that Russia picked this fight by baiting Georgia into acting in South Ossetia and then responding with a well-planned invasion that has gone beyond the borders of South Ossetia and deep into Georgia. Russia clearly wants to expand (reestablish) its influence in the region and is acting accordingly.
What makes this particularly sticky for the United States is that Georgia has been a staunch US ally for the past decade. Georgian troops have been serving alongside ours in Iraq. NATO, at the behest of the United States, has been planning to have Georgia and the Ukraine (known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union) join the treaty organization--the charter for which, by the way, was aimed at Soviet Russia and states that "an attack on any member is an attack on all members." It is arguably not in Russia's national interests for Georgia and the Ukraine to join NATO. Such are the ingredients for wider war.
President Bush just announced that the United States is sending humanitarian aid to Georgia via our air and naval forces. This could get interesting.