Presidents Obama and Saakashvili has their much-anticipated Oval Office meeting Monday afternoon, and their comments to the press afterwards suggested that differences of opinion remained over the question of the U.S. supplying weapons to Georgia. That has become the most fraught element of the U.S.-Georgia partnership, with Tbilisi pushing hard to get the U.S. to give or sell the Georgians "defensive" weapons, and the U.S. demurring. Congress recently tried to force Obama to restart a more robust defense cooperation, including arms sales, but Obama then declared his intention to ignore Congress, setting up the potential of a small crisis between the tiny Caucasus nation and its would-be superpower patron. At the White House meeting, in spite of the formal professions of strong cooperation, it wasn't hard to see cracks in that facade.
Obama spoke first, and made an unfortunate slip of the tongue: he praised the "institution-building that's been taking place in Russia -- in Georgia." (Saakashvili did display remarkable restraint during the second or so before Obama corrected himself, sitting stone-faced.) After mentioning the possibility of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Georgia, he then discussed defense cooperation:
We talked about how to continue to strengthen our defense cooperation and there are a wide range of areas where we're working together. And I reaffirmed to the president, and reassured him, that the United States will contnue to support Georgia's aspirations to ultimately become a member of NATO.
By contrast, here is what Saakashvili said about defense cooperation:
We are grateful for your support for our NATO aspirations. We are very grateful for elevating our defense cooperation further, and talking about Georgia's self-defense capabilities and developing it, that's of course an important message back to my nation.
But Obama had not, in fact, "talked about Georgia's self-defense capabilities," so that Saakashvili suggested that doing so was "an important message back to my nation" seems, reading between the lines a bit, a mild rebuke to Obama for not publicly mentioning the topic. Maybe they talked about it in private, but that Obama wasn't willing to discuss it in public seems telling. Anyway, looks like we'll have to wait a little longer to see any movement on the weapons issue.
UPDATE: Saakashvili, speaking to Georgian reporters after the meeting, suggested that there was in fact movement on the weapons issue. From Civil.ge:
In his remarks outside the White House, Saakashvili emphasized on what he called “elevating” defense cooperation with the U.S. “on new level”.
“We are talking about elevating cooperation in the defense sphere on to the new level; if in previous years we were talking only about anti-terrorism operations and our participation in peacekeeping operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, now we are talking about cooperating with the United States on developing Georgia’s self-defense capabilities. We will continue working on these issues; very concrete meetings have been planned and this is new, higher level of our cooperation in the military and security issues,” Saakashvili said.
Georgia’s Ambassador to the U.S., Temur Yakobashvili, told Rustavi 2 TV, that it had been agreed that during the ongoing visit the Georgian delegation would hold talks with the relevant U.S. authorities to discuss issues related to “bringing Georgia’s self-defense capabilities to a new level”, which would help Georgia “to better defend ourselves.” Yakobashvili also said that a meeting between the Georgian Defense Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State would also be held “in the nearest future.”
Watch this space.