Argument

Upset

No one really expected Georgia's opposition to win this election. So, what now?

The polls got it wrong. And so did most Western observers. Despite widespread fears of a deadlocked, disputed election and protests on the streets, Georgia is -- so far -- on the path toward a surprisingly orderly transfer of power following parliamentary elections of Monday, Oct. 1. Mikheil Saakashvili, the hyperactive reformist president who has governed Georgia since coming to power following a peaceful uprising in 2003, conceded defeat in a televised statement on Tuesday. Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party will now control Parliament and, crucially, will be in place when constitutional reforms go into effect next year devolving key powers to the prime minister.

Most opinion polls had been predicting a victory for the governing party, the United National Movement (UNM), and most of the mental effort in Western capitals had been focused on the problem of how to persuade Georgian Dream to accept defeat gracefully. I realized something was wrong with this conventional wisdom when I traveled through western Georgia two weeks ago and encountered a palpably pro-opposition mood, even in the booming port city of Batumi, which has been the showcase of Saakashvili's new Georgia. But I also got it wrong, predicting that the two main parties would divide the popular vote equally but that the UNM would win the most seats.

The missing factor in most calculations was Georgia's silent majority: the large number of voters who responded "don't know" and "refuse to answer" in the pre-election polls. (That said, the late-breaking scandal of leaked video footage of abuse in Georgian prisons surely also shifted a large number of undecided voters.) But one can't discount that Georgian politics remain quite feudal. Many Georgians voted for Ivanishvili because he successfully projected himself as the country's next leader and attracted the crowds on the street to prove it. The momentum simply went Ivanishvili's way, and many voters deserted one ship for another.

Constitutional deadlock beckons. Saakashvili will still serve as president, with the same powers he currently possesses, for a year or more, while a new opposition-dominated Parliament challenges him and probably forms a new government. The new constitution, which endows the job of prime minister with stronger executive powers, takes effect only when Saakashvili's term ends. The French call what happens in the meantime "cohabitation," but it will be taking place in a political culture with an aversion to compromise, where the two sides just recently declared each other mortal enemies and without European rules or institutions to buffer the country against shocks. There are also bound to be calls for an early presidential election and questions about the legitimacy of Georgia's rather lax rules on election timing. In January 2013, Saakashvili will have completed the full five years of his second term in office, but Georgian legislation allows for elections to be held at any point in the calendar year of 2013, permitting Saakashvili to serve out the entire year of 2013, should he choose to.

And there will be tensions not just between the two new big players in Georgian politics but within their ranks. Georgian Dream is a coalition of very diverse politicians, united mainly by their opposition to Saakashvili. And the president's UNM combines real reformers with do-nothing bureaucrats. Expect it to take a while for a working government to emerge out of all this.

Whatever happens, this is the beginning of the end of the Saakashvili era. The president has earned his place in history as a state-builder and modernizer. But this election shows that Georgia was tired of his furious and divisive style of government. Georgia's revolutionary phase is now over. Saakashvili is a supremely talented politician, and still only 44, but it is hard to imagine a scenario where he comes back to power. He has made too many enemies.

But it is more than plausible that one of Saakashvili's allies will win high office in the future, when the political mood in Georgia changes again. One key Saakashvili lieutenant, the mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, keeps his job in any case and probably has ambitions for the future. But what's immediately clear is that this was not an election Saakashvili wanted to lose -- indeed he used all the means at his disposal to win it by making liberal use of state resources and the power of the country's two most powerful television stations.

That strategy failed -- and it is to the credit of Saakashvili and his government that they are accepting their defeat. The key factor in ensuring Georgia's historically democratic election was the massive and close Western scrutiny of the election. Western officials will now inevitably be involved behind the scenes in helping manage and mediate the messy political transition as Georgian politicians now find themselves in unknown territory, forced to actually negotiate with each other.

They will need time to get to grips with the new reality of how, as the president declared, "democracy works."

VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Case for Humility

Why Israel and the United States should keep their disagreements to themselves.

Speaking at the United Nations on Sept. 27, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a red marker to graphically sharpen the focus on the need for a "red line" in halting the Iranian nuclear program.

The issue of red lines is being conflated by some with the idea of delivering a public ultimatum to Iran. But that's not quite right: Setting red lines is not about what is said publicly, but rather about what Tehran views as credible -- however it is conveyed.

There are signs that Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, since their recent hour-long phone call, are renewing their efforts to reach a quiet understanding on this critical issue. In their speeches at the United Nations this past week, both leaders kept the focus on Iran -- even while stepping back from a U.S.-Israeli confrontation.

This was particularly evident in Netanyahu's speech, where the Israeli premier no longer made it sound like an Israeli strike was imminent before the U.S. presidential election in November, and subtly shifted the parameters of the debate from Israel's closing window of action (what Israeli officials describe as the "zone of immunity") to the point where can Iran make an easy dash to weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

Netanyahu also said the United States and Israel are currently "in talks" on the Iran issue, suggesting the two countries are focused on how to best ensure and measure the shared objective of preventing the Islamic Republic from going nuclear. However, there is no denying that tensions still exist between the two allies. Their war of words reached a high pitch recently when Netanyahu, responding to what he interpreted as a personal rebuke by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that if the United States does not put down red lines in halting the Iranian nuclear program, it has no moral right to put a red light in front of an Israeli strike. In a 60 Minutes interview, Obama appeared to dismiss such public statements as "noise."

It's time to dial down the rhetoric. In truth, both sides could use a dose of humility before sounding off in public.

For Israel, humility is required because public confrontation with the United States does not make any strategic sense. Israeli security officials will be the first to say there is no substitute for policy intimacy with their patron in Washington. Moreover, when there is a public disagreement with the United States on the issue of the nuclear program, only Iran profits. Tehran is bound to interpret such divisions as a lack of resolve.

But we in the United States could also use some humility. First, let's admit that our track record in halting rogue nuclear programs is rather poor. We may have bought off Libya, but we did not stop the nuclear programs of North Korea and Pakistan. As has been said by the former deputy head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Agency Ariel Levite, now at the Carnegie Endowment, the U.S. approach has been "too early, too early, oops, too late."

Second, Israel has strong historical reasons to be skeptical of international guarantees. On the eve of the epic 1967 war, Israel's then Foreign Minister Abba Eban came to the White House to remind President Lyndon Johnson of the U.S. commitment to militarily intercede if Egypt closed a key waterway -- the Straits of Tiran -- to Israeli shipping. But the United States was preoccupied with Vietnam and other issues, and Israel was left on its own. This traumatic moment enshrined Israel's ethos of self-reliance.

Third, we need to admit that there are legitimate questions whether the United States will be able to detect with confidence Iran's dash to weaponization. In his U.N. remarks, Netanyahu alluded to Iran's ability to reach a level of enrichment by next summer that would put it in easy reach of weapons-grade nuclear fuel in as little as one to two months. If the Islamic Republic takes that step, will Washington discover it quickly enough to do something about it?

Iran allows video cameras to film around the clock in its underground sites, but it only allows the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to collect the images every six to eight weeks. Therefore, a cancelled IAEA visit can become a full-blown crisis: It would mean the world has no way of knowing whether Iran is expanding its enrichment efforts to produce weapons-grade uranium. Furthermore, it remains possible that Iran could install the next generation of centrifuges, allowing it to produce highly enriched uranium even quicker. The fact is, by sometime after the summer of 2013, we simply may not know what Iran is capable of.

Fourth, even if the United States is successful in detection, will Washington act on that knowledge in timely fashion?

According to an op-ed by former CIA chief Michael Hayden, even when the United States confirmed that Syria was building a nuclear reactor in 2007 and that it had a military purpose, the intelligence community did not recommend military action because it could not find the reprocessing plant needed for weaponization. In his memoir, President George W. Bush also cited this as the reason for the lack of U.S. action.

Moreover, top officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates were preoccupied with other initiatives such as the surge in Iraq, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was focused on the talks with North Korea. As a result, Israel acted alone -- and the reactor was destroyed. While there are more differences than similarities with the Iranian case, the episode in Syria was yet another instructive example for Israel that its superpower ally is sometimes busy elsewhere.

Finally, it is worth stating the obvious: Israel is threatened by the Iranian leadership with "full annihilation," in the words of armed forces chief of staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, and routinely called a cancerous tumor that needs to be removed. As such, it perceives its margin of error as narrower than a superpower with global interests resting safely an ocean away.

Of course, all sides hope that the nuclear standoff with Iran will be resolved peacefully with a mix of diplomacy and sanctions. Yet, what if this mix does not work? With the stakes so high, it is important that both Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney spell out in detail to the American public how the United States will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Given our track record, it would be good to start with humility.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images