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U.S. limited in Georgia crisis

American effort to spread democracy wanes in post-Iraq era.

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But since the crisis began, there has been no hint that the United States would consider any kind of military move, even logistical aid for Georgian forces, that would bring it into direct conflict with Russia. The US and the West appear to have little leverage over a Moscow that is flush with oil money and eager to reestablish its position along its borders.

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Expulsion of Russia from the G-8 group of industrialized nations was among the few apparent strong actions the US and Europe could take.

Other possible moves include threatening Russia with the loss of the 2014 Winter Olympic games at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

"The United States, its allies, and other countries need to send a strong signal to Moscow that creating 19th-century-style spheres of influence and redrawing the borders of the former Soviet Union is a danger to world peace," said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, in an analysis of the impact of the crisis.

Georgian President Saakashvili has long been one of the Bush administration's favorite world leaders. Georgia contributed 2,000 troops to the US effort in Iraq, and Mr. Saakashvili has talked often of his support for Bush administration efforts to spread freedom and democracy among the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Saakashvili and Bush seem to share a good personal chemistry. Bush visited Georgia in 2005; during Saakashvili's return visits to the White House, the two joshed about folk dancing and their wives' luncheon plans.

In March, at a White House appearance, Saakashvili thanked Bush for supporting Georgia's aspirations to join NATO and for "protecting Georgia's borders."

"I think this is a very unequivocal support we're getting from you," the Georgian leader told the US president, for the cameras.

The US has long publicly stated that it is in favor of a peaceful settlement of Georgia's disputes with its breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Yet Saakashvili decided to send troops into South Ossetia, anyway. That appears to have been the spark that set off the crisis – or the provocation that Russia was waiting for.

Perhaps the Georgian leader thought the US would come to his aid if he got in trouble. If so, he did not take into account the drain that Iraq has been on US forces and the US standing in the world – or the American need to work with Russia on other important geopolitical issues, such as the effort to curb Iran's nuclear program.