I have Georgia on my mind. No, not the birthplace of Ray Charles. I'm talking about the former Soviet republic nestled in the Caucasus Mountains between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In its pursuit of evil, the U.S. military is now sending armaments and "advisers" to this faraway land. Don't worry -- no combat missions are anticipated there. (Where have we heard that one before? Did you say "Vietnam"? Good answer.)
America has a bad habit. No matter who's in the White House, one president after another has given in to the temptation of ordering U.S. military equipment and troops into "noncombat" situations that eventually turn into shooting situations. It is classic "mission creep" and it's almost always a mistake.
In this case, we are witnessing an extension of the Bush administration's war policy that was originally purported to stop one terrorist group. Now, it has become a never-ending global enterprise.
As with many other developing nations, it's often difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys in Georgia. That country has been immersed in hostilities between competing warlords for more than a decade. But unlike the boggy risks America faces in the Philippines, Indonesia, Colombia or elsewhere, this particular backwoods battleground brings along one other bit of baggage: Russia.
Although the U.S.S.R. no longer exists, Mother Russia still supposes certain territorial rights in that region she calls "The Near Abroad." Despite the fact that there are no treaties prohibiting Georgia and the United States from enjoying bilateral relations, Washington should be wary of further encampments on the Russian Bear's borders. This is particularly important in the wake of NATO's recent decision to deprive the Russians of voting privileges in that alliance.
But avoiding Russian wrath is only one reason to tread lightly in the Caucasus. Another is the very nature of that area which can be summed up in one word: trouble.
Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in April 1991. Since then, the country has been ruled by two dictators. The first was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, son of a famous Georgian literary figure. A renowned anti- Communist, Gamsakhurdia came to power during the collapse of the Bolshevik empire.
I last saw the Georgian strongman in his bunker beneath the parliament building as it was being shelled by anti-government forces. In early 1992, Gamsakhurdia was driven from his capital by armed rebels loyal to former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. The following year, Gamsakhurdia was killed -- either by assassins or by his own hand -- in a typically Georgian epic crime that remains an unsolved mystery today.
In the aftermath of Gamsakhurdia's ouster, the country has been under the personal rule of Shevardnadze. He, too, has been the apparent target of numerous assassination attempts. Washington undoubtedly feels a debt of gratitude to him for his role in ending the Cold War.
The Bush administration has additional ties to Shevardnadze, through his close relationship with former Secretary of State James Baker. And Georgia remains an appealing candidate for transshipment of Caspian Sea oil.
Nevertheless, throughout these post-Soviet years, Georgia has been a briar patch of political intrigue. There are layers upon layers of complexity.
Georgia is engulfed in various independence movements threatening to Balkanize this little nation into several fiefdoms. As with most former Soviet republics, Georgia is dominated by the overriding influences of an underground economy (i.e., black market) and organized crime.
Georgia is adjacent to Chechnya. Although officially part of the Russian Federation, Chechnya is quasi-autonomous. In fact, it's one of the most combat- ridden and anarchic places on the planet, rife with the remnants of repeated Russian military assaults. It is also a virtual warehouse of Russian weaponry, much of which (along with Chechen soldiers) has found its way into other combat zones.
Both Moscow and Washington have accused Chechens of spawning terrorism, having close ties to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and supporting revolts in Georgia.
It's into this cauldron of chaos that the Pentagon now begins to deploy uniformed American advisers. My best advice to them: Don't go. But if you must, be sure you know the way out.
Terry Phillips is a veteran war correspondent. He lives on the Sonoma County coast where he's finishing "Murder at the Altar," an historical novel about ethnic and religious conflict.
Causes Terry Phillips Supports
Armenia Fund, ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Fund, Amnesty International