In the days since Russian troops marched into Georgia, there have been any number of voices telling Americans that this is not our concern: It’s so far away. There are interminable ethnic conflicts involved. And it does not affect our national interest. Most of the voices saying these things say the same about Iraq, and they do so under the same misapprehension of the American national interest, which is a much more complicated thing than having or not having enemy troops massed at our borders.

In fact, the fate of Iraq holds great consequences for our national interest, for reasons that have been well discussed over the last few years. The fate of Georgia is similarly consequential to our national interest, though for some very different reasons. We ought to consider these reasons carefully before we are tempted to limit our response to this crisis to the probable State Department-supported strategy of writing a strongly-worded letter to Dmitry Medvedev.

1.) Georgia is an ally. It is not yet a member of NATO, and hence we are not yet bound by treaty to defend it from every incursion into its territory, but it is an ally nonetheless. It is on the path to NATO membership; it has generally been supportive of American policy and principles; and most importantly, it has allied itself with the United States in Iraq, devoting precious troops to that—our—cause, even as they might have been kept at home to augment their capacity to deter an invasion like the one they are now experiencing.

They are not alone in doing this. Many other nations joined the Coalition of the Willing, and many Americans are fond of noting how many of these were once under Soviet domination—they know what it is like to suffer under a tyranny like Saddam’s, and they appreciate the efforts America made towards their own liberation. There is some truth to this, but geopolitics rarely runs on sentiment, even sentiments as noble as these. A much more important reason that such states have allied with the United States in Iraq is the expectation that America will now be allied with them, and that the favor they have done us there will be returned if they themselves should ever come under any danger. The reason that former Soviet-dominated states joined the Iraq coalition with such frequency is that these states (rightly) concluded that they might someday soon need a favor from the United States to protect them from a re-expansionist Russia.

If America is unwilling or unable to do anything meaningful in defense of Georgia, then Georgia will not have gotten anything out of its alliance with the United States. Our other allies in similar positions will see this, and they will have no choice but to reevaluate their relations with us, probably by orienting themselves towards our enemies. Whenever the next crisis pops up in which we need international support—whether in Iran, Korea, Taiwan, Europe, or who knows where—we will find ourselves with even fewer friends than we have today, and perhaps even more troops on the other side.

2.) Russian influence on NATO. Georgia’s path to NATO membership, and hence to a strengthened alliance that would probably have deterred the present Russian aggression, was stalled by a German veto. (Every NATO action must be approved by every member state.) The general perception is that Angela Merkel did this in an effort to placate Russia.

If Russia was able to intimidate Germany into doing its will on the North Atlantic Council, and if it is able to parlay this act of intimidation into a successful invasion of Georgia and into keeping Georgia out of NATO, even when it now so clearly needs membership, then there is every reason to expect that Russia will attempt to continue this practice with respect to Germany and any other NATO countries over which it might have sway. Since every NATO member state has a veto over all policies, then Russia will only have to gain the ability to intimidate one member state at any time in order to utterly paralyze the organization and render it a non-entity. Paradoxically, Merkel’s veto may have tied Georgia’s and NATO’s fates much more intimately than they would be if Georgia had actually joined.

Such a fate for NATO, of course, would be terribly convenient from Russia’s perspective, which is the whole idea. But this convenience would come at the cost of the order that has for decades largely kept the peace in what for centuries had been the bloodiest of continents.

3.) Russian imperial designs. Russia is clearly trying to regain the status and the sphere of influence it enjoyed during the Cold War. Georgia is only one of the many countries it must cow in order to achieve that goal. If it is successful in Georgia, then it will naturally turn its sights to other countries it once dominated, including most troublingly the Baltic states, which are presently members of NATO. If NATO still exists in any meaningful sense when this happens, then the United States will be bound by treaty to wage war against Russia in their defense.

Recall that Russia has already waged a campaign of cyberwarfare against Estonia, and the lack of Western response to that provocation might well have given an unfortunate (and hopefully inaccurate) impression of NATO’s willingness to defend its member states.

4.) The democracy project. It has been a staple of American grand strategy over the past decades that the more democracies there are, the safer America is. The reasons for this are many, including the fact that democracies tend not to be belligerent against their neighbors, the fact that democracies are better able to resolve their internal problems peacefully and hence without bloodshed spilling across borders, the fact that democracies do not support terrorism, and the fact that democracies can be better trusted with nuclear technology. Hence, America has made a habit of supporting democracies over dictatorships wherever possible. And this support has given many democratizing countries encouragement to further develop their democratic institutions, augmenting American national security in many subtle ways. This process is independent of, but related to, the network of American alliances discussed above.

But if American support for Georgia should prove to be insubstantial, then it will demonstrate that the American commitment to democracy is likewise insubstantial. The shallow encouragement of the United States as these countries travel the road to democracy can be expected to disappear if troubles are presented from the likes of Russia. Safety, however, might be found by conforming to the ways of the autocratic powers, giving Russia (or China, or other emboldened powers) what they want without having to suffer the pains of being invaded by them and waiting for an American rescue that will never come. This would degrade the American national interest in precisely the ways it was being augmented by these countries moving in the opposite direction.

Of particular note in this respect is Georgia’s neighbor Azerbaijan, a democratizing Muslim state whose oil is being pumped through the BTC pipeline. It has also committed troops to Iraq, bespeaking a notable Western orientation, despite both its dangerous proximity to Russia and its Muslim religion. Muslim democracies are particularly important to the American national interest today, and an abandonment of Georgia can only encourage Azerbaijan to backslide from what progress it has made towards democratization.

5.) The Gulf War precedent. The world has seen many wars since the end of the Cold War, but it has not seen very many wars of the type that used to be the most common, wherein one country invades another and just takes over. The exception to this was in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attempted to conquer Kuwait. America’s and the international community’s response to this was so overwhelming that no one has tried anything similar since, even though there are clearly many despots who would like to. The rule was established in 1991: You can get away with a lot under the New World Order, but you can’t go around conquering your neighbors. And if you break this rule, then you might end up like Saddam—not only losing the war, but eventually also losing power and your own life.

It’s not yet clear whether this is on the Russian agenda in Georgia, but by the time it becomes clear, it might be too late to do anything about it. If Russia should conquer Georgia without meaningful American response, then the precedent set by the Gulf War will be void. Any aspiring conquerors held back from their ambitions by fear of American response will suddenly feel themselves free to redraw the map. This might happen anywhere on the globe, and the odds that none of these wars of conquest would impinge very directly on the American national interest are very slim.

6.) American military overstretch. The more clearly the Russian invasion violates international norms (action merely in South Ossetia would have provided cover, but things seem to have gone well beyond that), the more likely any American inaction will be seen not as a matter of our unwillingness to act, but rather as evidence of our inability to act.

The threat of possible American intervention has prevented far more wars than the American military has been or ever could be involved in. These prevented wars might involve any and every country on the globe—not just our allies, not just democracies, and not just in matters of annexation. And any of these wars prevented by the looming presence of the American world policeman might be started after all, once it becomes apparent that the world policeman is out of business.

What’s more, once the Iraq situation is resolved (if it can be resolved, that is, under the new international order that might follow a Russian victory in Georgia), then the United States will be constrained from pursuing any other military action, no matter how necessary it might be, lest we find ourselves again unable to act in a more vital situation that might pop up later. And this unwillingness to act would further degrade the power of American deterrence, thereby inviting more situations where intervention would be called for and hesitated over, starting the vicious circle over again.

7.) Oil. The possible implications of Russian control over the BTC and other pipelines are too varied to address here, but it should be noted that the added control over European energy supplies that Russia would gain could be another tool with which to intimidate our NATO and other allies, exacerbating many of the other problems addressed above.

I am sure that there are many other reasons that the situation in Georgia intersects with American national interests, but I fear that if I were to give these matters all the consideration they deserve, the war would be over before I could get anything written. And none of this, of course, is to mention the very important facts that the Russian invasion is unjust, that the innocent people of Georgia deserve to be protected, and that they possess the right to self-government, which is now very much in danger. This is not the topic at hand, but it is not to deny the great importance of these factors.

This is a mess, and whether we like it or not, it will be up to America to clean it up—either in Georgia today, or else through the rest of the world for many, many years to come, and at the cost of more lives than can be contemplated. To my mind, the only way that this situation could do anything but seriously degrade American interests would be if, after it is all over, Georgia is able to 1.) join NATO, 2.) host a permanent American military base, and 3.) continue to be led by Mikheil Saakashvili. Whether this Georgia includes South Ossetia and Abkhazia might not necessarily be non-negotiable, although it would be highly preferable if Georgia remained intact. But if Georgia, assuming it even survives, comes out of this conflict too intimidated by Russia to join NATO and to invite a permanent American presence, or if other NATO member states are too intimidated to agree to this, then the problems for the United States might make the dangers presented by Iran in the near future look like child’s play. And if we cannot protect the personal safety and legitimate leadership of a figure who has been as close to us as Saakashvili has, then the consequences will be similarly dire.

The last few days of reports from Washington do not give confidence that the Bush administration fully appreciates the potential gravity of this situation, nor that they are willing to take any significant steps in addressing it. I hope that further consideration will show them all that is at stake. We must stand with Georgia.

Update: John McCain seems to see things similarly:

The implications of Russian actions go beyond their threat to the territorial integrity and independence of a democratic Georgia. Russia is using violence against Georgia, in part, to intimidate other neighbors – such as Ukraine – for choosing to associate with the West and adhering to Western political and economic values. As such, the fate of Georgia should be of grave concern to Americans and all people who welcomed the end of a divided of Europe, and the independence of former Soviet republics. The international response to this crisis will determine how Russia manages its relationships with other neighbors. We have other important strategic interests at stake in Georgia, especially the continued flow of oil through the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which Russia attempted to bomb in recent days; the operation of a critical communication and trade route from Georgia through Azerbaijan and Central Asia; and the integrity and influence of NATO, whose members reaffirmed last April the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Georgia.