Was it all just bravado? Well, Washington's escalation was carefully pitched: in Bush's announcement there were plenty of veiled threats and few specifics. He did not say "we are going to take over Georgia's military command and run the shit from the Pentagon", nor did he say "the US ministry of defense is going to take over Georgia's airports and sea ports". But he left enough threads dangling that one could infer a wide range of possible US actions - and from this administration, you certainly wouldn't rule out the most aggressive strategies. There is an element of the 'madman theory' in action here: let the world think we're about nuts enough to do anything, and they'll go along with our preferred strategy with some relief and gratitude. Saakashvili spoiled it by blustering that, uh huh, America was going to take over Georgia's airports and sea ports and run them from Washington. This provoked an immediate denial from his nervous American backers. As the Washington Post points out, the US appears to have been relying on "mixed signals", by "pointedly using military planes and ships and warning Russia not to block sea, air or land transport routes, while insisting it had no plans to intervene militarily." But the Pentagon insists that: "This is not an attempt to put military assets in closer proximity to inject U.S. forces into this conflict". It also denies that naval vessels will actually be sent to the Black Sea. And the US has, apparently, warned Saakashvili not to provoke Russia militarily by sending Georgian troops into South Ossetia and they had ruled out any U.S. military action to defend Georgia.
Saakashvili may be upsetting the American posture with his mercurial performances, but that doesn't mean we can feel at ease. The crucial point here is that the situation has its own deadly dynamics that can override the exiguous constraints of diplomacy. Bearing in mind the context of a brutal struggle over the control of energy supplies in the region, and given America's determination to maintain the encirclement of Russia, Georgia is still a dangerous frontline. The US mission, moreover, is clearly not a 'humanitarian' one, and to that extent Pentagon disavowals are totally unbelievable. The US may deliver substantial relief supplies (the scale of the proposed aid is supposedly unusually large), but I expect they will do so in addition to supplying military aid and direction. Already they have helped deliver 2,000 Georgian troops from Iraq and supplied substantial military training, and among their current avowed aims is to send a few dozen officers to liaise with the Georgian military. There is also the question of divisions in the American state. It seems as if there is an effort by some in the defense establishment to take the heat out of Bush's remarks. The US military leadership may not want anything that could even approach a confrontation with Russia - but the civilian leadership is quite ruthless and has a knack for outmanoeuvering its opponents in the state. Regionally, the US may also decide to up its game. The presence of US troops across the former Soviet states has thus far been quite limited: no need for them as long as there's a pro-Washington regime and no serious military threat. Although the 'lily-pads' are significant in terms of their potential uses, securing strategic routes for US troops should the need arise, the total number of US troops in the former Soviet countries as of 2005 was 132 [pdf] (by contrast, there were over 35,000 troops stationed in Japan and almost 30,000 in South Korea). In light of intensified struggles in the Caucasus and Central Asia, that figure may rise substantially. And as I have said before, even if the current dilemmatic is temporarily resolved, it is bound to flare up again soon. The fact that this contest is rooted in something as central to global capitalism as the extraction and transport of energy means that it is permament and inclined to escalate - and that ought to give us a presentiment of real horror.