Argument

Failed No Longer

How Georgia came back from the brink.

This week's Nuclear Security Summit included not only large nuclear powers, such as Britain and India, but also countries like Georgia -- a small state with no nuclear weapons, no nuclear energy, and no nuclear materials.

Why is a small country like Georgia relevant to the large challenges facing our world? Although the deep transformations Georgia has undertaken in recent years are important to our own people, they also are relevant to global efforts to address such crucial challenges as nuclear proliferation.

To understand Georgia's role in a global challenge like nuclear proliferation, it helps to understand how Georgia is evolving and how Georgians see their place in the world.

Just a decade ago, Georgia could not seriously speak of playing any constructive role in the world. We were, to be perfectly frank and accurate, a failed state. Major areas of our country were effectively run by warlords. The police system was corrupt beyond description, with state police extorting payments from prisoners' families and shakedowns by traffic police at almost every corner.

Young people with talent and ambition sought to join local gangs -- or they simply fled the country. Our economy was literally in the Dark Ages. Even in Tbilisi, the capital, people had electricity for only a few hours a day. Real civil liberties did not exist because there was no one to enforce them. Chaos and corruption, like their predecessor, communism, deadened any sense that merit mattered.

Against that backdrop, our Rose Revolution in 2003 was not just about waving flags and storming the Parliament. It was a decision to move our state from failed to functioning. Even more, it was an attempt to change the very relationships between our citizens and their state, and among our people. It was, simply, the start of an audacious process to create a new Georgian society.

Seven years later, we are far from declaring victory. Our people continue to face hard times, with far too much unemployment and poverty. The 2008 Russian invasion and continuing occupation of our country exacted a terrible toll. And though we made big changes, we also made big mistakes, such as our overly harsh response to the opposition street protests in November 2007. Our democratic reforms remain incomplete, a work in progress.

Yet the changes that Georgians have dared to make since 2004 are nonetheless sweeping. We are steadily pursuing reforms to ensure we are not only a democracy, but a liberal one that protects individual rights and civil society.

In just six years, we have gone from near feudalism to an emerging and modernizing market economy. A series of dramatic, liberalizing economic reforms have catapulted Georgia to No. 11 in the world in terms of ease of doing business, according to the World Bank -- just after Norway and No. 1 across Central Europe.

Where once Georgians lived without electricity or were vulnerable to energy cutoffs and pipeline sabotage from our neighbors, we are now one of the most energy-independent countries in the world --and our energy is notably green.

Our war on corruption has produced dramatic results. Less than 1 percent of Georgians say they get any requests for bribes. Indeed, Georgia has made more progress on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index since 2003 than any other state and now ranks above several members of the European Union.

We are expanding social services, including subsidized health insurance for the poor. In 2006, only 48,000 individuals in Georgia had health insurance. Now it's 1.5 million, including 1.2 million covered by the state. And we are doing this even as we provide housing and income support for the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons who were ethnically cleansed from Georgian villages in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008.

Above all, we are working to transform the way individuals in Georgia conceive of their relation to the state, and to each other. We have created protections against discrimination on account of race, religion, or sexual preference -- a novelty for the Caucasus. This also means stronger protections for dissent. When protesters took to the streets in Tbilisi last April, we stood aside, with no recourse to force, as they shut down the city's main streets for nearly three months. We are also steadily reforming our electoral system.

All this was made possible, in part, by generous support from the international community, including billions from the United States and the European Union in the aftermath of the 2008 war. Here in America, this has been a bipartisan project, sustained by the leadership of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Failed states do not only fail their own people. They also tend to fail in their responsibilities to the broader world. And that is why this story of Georgia's recent transformations is relevant to a broad series of international challenges -- including the challenge of nuclear proliferation that was addressed at this week's summit.

The fact is, the nature of the world's challenges is changing. The old threat of cross-border aggression remains -- unfortunately, I can testify to that firsthand. But the world also increasingly confronts a range of more diffuse challenges that, as Obama said more than a year ago in Berlin, "cannot be contained within the borders of a country or by the distance of an ocean."

In such a world, the calculations that underlie security change. We all need not only a balance of power, but also a balance of cooperation. We need formal alliances and informal networks of countries that act in close concert to defeat the era's new threats.

That balance of cooperation begins with the like-minded states that bring the greatest capacity and leverage to the table -- starting with those in the transatlantic community, which is why we support a strong NATO and European Union, even though we are not yet members.

The connection between Georgia's internal governance and our external responsibilities was clear to us from the first days of the Rose Revolution. Very early in my presidency, then Russian President Vladimir Putin called me to say that he would be ready to accept our new Georgian regime, as long as I was willing to agree to just one, small, innocuous provision ... that he could name our ministers of interior and foreign affairs. In other words, that we agree to be something less than a fully independent, sovereign, and functioning state.

Instead, we determined that, as we nurtured personal responsibility among our own people, we would also show responsibility to the global community. That is why we have undertaken a range of steps to do our fair share in addressing pressing global problems.

In recent years, as we rebuilt a functioning state and stepped up to our international responsibilities, we have played a significant role in efforts to combat the illegal sale of small arms, drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, and more. We helped break up numerous uranium smuggling attempts. We have contributed nearly 1,000 troops to the multilateral war effort in Afghanistan. We aren't doing all this as a way to win points. We are doing this as an expression of our own values.

All this may seem sensible and unexceptional -- a normal, responsible state expressing normal, responsible values. Yet for some states, these normal, responsible values are, indeed, profoundly threatening. Ideas of individual liberty, responsibility, and merit pose a real danger to any regime that maintains its power through repression, intimidation, and cronyism.

As new histories show, that was the real reason for Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 -- the fact that we were choosing to "go west" in how we govern ourselves and relate to the world. Our small state did not threaten any of our neighbors. But our far-reaching values did.

Yet this is what Georgia has chosen to be -- a country that lives its values at home and abroad. Sometimes, this makes us a bit troublesome. But I would also suggest it is what makes us a reliable partner in the new efforts to build cooperation on crucial matters of global security.

IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Inside the Syrian Missile Crisis

News that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has provided Hezbollah with Scud missiles threatens to spark a regional conflict and poses a new challenge for President Obama's engagement policy.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent officials in Damascus and Washington scrambling when he claimed Tuesday that Syria is providing the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah with Scud missiles whose accuracy and range threaten more Israeli cities than ever before. His unexpected announcement, though vehemently denied by the Syrian regime, threatens to spark a new war between Israel and its antagonists in the region while further undermining U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts at engagement with Syria.

The alleged missile transfer now looms over the Senate confirmation of Obama's ambassador-designate to Syria, Robert S. Ford, who is slated to be Washington's first emissary to Damascus in more than five years. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's apparent decision to transfer more accurate and longer-range weapons to Hezbollah is a disheartening development for U.S. officials, who had hoped Obama's diplomatic opening would lead the Syrian regime to moderate its behavior. As Damascus arms its Lebanese ally with an increasingly lethal array of weaponry, Syria's credibility as a peace partner for Israel is increasingly in doubt.

Weapons have been flowing from Syria to Lebanon for decades. However, in recent months, reports have indicated that the sophistication of the weapons systems provided to Hezbollah has grown. In October 2009, the British military magazine Jane's Defence Weekly reported that Syria had supplied Hezbollah with M-600 rockets, a Syrian variant of the Iranian Fatah 110, whose rudimentary guidance system can carry a 500-kilogram payload to a target 250 kilometers away.

In early March, the head of the research division of the Israel Defense Forces' Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that Syria had recently provided Hezbollah with the Igla-S man-portable air defense systems. The shoulder-fired weapon can bring down the Israeli drones, helicopter gunships, and low-flying fighter aircraft that routinely fly over Lebanon to gather intelligence.

Reports of increased weapons transfers surfaced again following Ford's nomination hearing on March 16. Rumors circulated around Capitol Hill that Syria had delivered Scud-D missiles to Lebanon. These reports did not specify whether the missiles were Russian Scud-Ds or Syrian varieties of Scud-Ds, which are upgraded versions of older Scud models that Syria reportedly began producing in mass quantities during the last year. Both missiles have a range of up to 700 kilometers, which means they could hit most, if not all, Israeli cities even if fired from northern Lebanon. Both can carry chemical or biological warheads.

Less than a week after a Feb. 17 visit by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns -- the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Damascus in more than five years -- Assad hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah at a banquet in Damascus. During the visit, Assad openly mocked U.S. efforts to distance Syria from Iran and stated that his government is "preparing ourselves for any Israeli aggression."

These weapons transfers appear to mark a continuation of Assad's belligerent stance. While Lebanon has long been the battlefield between Syria and Israel, the transfer of these weapons may indicate that the Syrian president is calculating that the next war with Israel could involve strikes on Syrian territory. Conversely, others have postulated that the transfers could also be designed to put pressure on the United States to get Israel back to the negotiating table -- a bizarre tactic that is clearly not working.

In trying to answer these questions, U.S. congressional leaders -- most notably Senator John Kerry -- have visited Damascus over the last few weeks and attempted to engage Assad directly on the issue. The results of the meetings have not been made public. Meanwhile in Beirut, the United States is said to have issued a number of diplomatic démarches to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri complaining about the transfers. Given that the Lebanese government exercises no control over the Syrian-Lebanese frontier, the démarches are likely to go unheeded.

These revelations have generated conflicting reactions in Washington regarding engagement with Syria. Skeptics say that the uncoordinated engagement by France, Saudi Arabia, the European Union -- and now the United States -- has fueled a bizarre outbreak of "Syrian triumphalism," causing Assad to throw caution to the wind. Syria's decision to send Scuds to Lebanon, they say, proves Damascus is unwilling to distance itself from Tehran. They argue that posting a U.S. ambassador to Syria under current circumstances would send the wrong signal to Damascus and only embolden Assad further.

Advocates of deeper engagement with Damascus argue that sending an ambassador will improve communication with the Syrian regime, thereby averting future crises. One unintended byproduct of Washington's policy of isolating Syria has been the elevation of the importance of Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who has proved to be an unhelpful interlocutor. The return of an ambassador to Damascus could provide channels to bypass Moustapha -- and also help avoid an "accident" that, in the atmosphere of rising Syrian-Israeli tensions, could spark a conflict.

The ability of U.S. diplomacy to avert a crisis now depends on the Scuds' current location. Reports citing U.S. and Israeli officials indicate that missiles have crossed the border, but it is unclear how many missiles possibly destined for Hezbollah still remain on Syrian soil. If fighting does break out, diplomats in Washington are concerned that the conflict could distract diplomatic attention from the more pressing U.S. national interest: efforts aimed at halting Iran's nuclear program. In the event of a regional war, Washington would no doubt be distracted from its task of marshaling international support for U.N. sanctions on Iran. By demonstrating that Hezbollah could not be neutralized without Syrian cooperation, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war helped break the Assad regime's international isolation -- a lesson not lost on Tehran.

Israel has traditionally responded to threats such as these by bombing Hezbollah missile sites in Lebanon. However, Israel has indicated privately over the last year that the next conflict could include strikes inside Syria as well, or perhaps target weapons convoys as they cross the porous Syrian-Lebanese border.

Although the risks of a Syrian counterstrike are great, some Israeli officials might see an advantage in striking at both Syria's and Lebanon's military hardware. Analysts say most decisions to go to war would be based on Israel's strategic calculations in the north. But there are regionwide calculations over Iran as well. If Israel destroys Hezbollah's weapons, it could provide a window of time in which Israeli cities are under a decreased threat of missile attack. This would give Israel a perfect opportunity to strike Iran without risking an immediate retaliation from Tehran's allies to its north. This scenario would not be cost-free for Israel, but given its overriding concern over Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon, Israeli leaders might judge it to be an acceptable level of risk. Given that an Israeli strike on Iran still seems out of the question for the time being, however, this may be one of the reasons why cooler heads have prevailed so far.

At the center of this unenviable situation sits ambassador-designate Robert Ford. The surprising escalation on the part of the Syrian regime represents yet another challenge to Obama's policy of engagement -- not to mention regional peace. Quiet diplomacy has so far managed to prevent the situation from disintegrating into an all-out war. However, if Israel locates the Scuds in Lebanon, this deceptive calm might not last for long.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images