But Georgia, on the other hand, presents a set of dilemmas which are lesser in scope, which have a smaller impact on U.S. policy because of the willingness of much of the U.S. media to ignore developments in Georgia which do not suit dominant U.S. paradigms and ambitions. Of course, objectively speaking, the geopolitical risks and moral embarrassments involved in supporting the Saakashvili regime in Georgia should be condemned more than those involved in supporting Musharraf because they are to a great extent gratuitous: they are not compelled by truly vital U.S. interests.

The risks for the U.S. in Georgia are essentially twofold. The first is already occurring: the Saakashvili administration could become so authoritarian at home that it will reduce the entire U.S. democracy promotion agenda in the former Soviet Union to a farce. The second is much more serious: It is that faced with growing domestic discontent, Saakashvili will seek to rally the nation behind him through an attack on one of the two Russian-backed separatist territories, Abkhazia or (more likely) South Ossetia. The president could gamble that faced with the humiliation of seeing a favored client crushed by Russia, the U.S. will feel impelled to come to Georgia’s aid.

If Saakashvili ever does make that grave decision, it will be the last one he makes as Georgian president. For in practical military terms, there is almost nothing that the U.S. could or would do to help Georgia in these circumstances. Nonetheless, this would indeed represent a humiliation for the U.S., as well as a very great and totally unnecessary crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. It would also have serious implications for Russian behavior in other areas of truly vital U.S. interest, like Iran.

Fortunately, in the case of Georgia the danger of this happening is to some extent mitigated by the fact that—at least judging by the remarks of European officials—recent events have made it much less likely that Georgia will join NATO. Therefore one reason for Russian hostility to Georgia will fade, or at least not grow further.

Above all, Georgia illustrates a fundamental historical truth about client states: a great power should only adopt them when it has no other choice to defend vital interests, or when they are strong enough to act as an effective buffer against a real enemy. Pakistan meets the first of these criteria; Georgia meets neither. Georgia might qualify as at least an important interest if there were a real chance of the energy of Central Asia (and not just Azerbaijan) flowing through Georgia to the West. But for a long time to come, a mixture of geographical reality, legal ambiguity, and Russian, Iranian and Chinese power seems almost certain to prevent this from happening. ~Anatol Lieven

Via James Poulos

James has his own thoughts on Georgia here.