Showdown: Bush sends "humanitarian" aid to Georgia as Russians advance; Update: "This is not 1968," says Condi; Update: Russians camp along the road to Tbilisi

Airlift 2008?

President Bush said Wednesday that the Pentagon had begun a “vigorous and ongoing” humanitarian mission to ease the suffering in Georgia, and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to France and then to Georgia to work for a settlement of the crisis…

Mr. Bush said that a transport plane with medical supplies was already on its way to Georgia, and that American air and naval forces would carry out the aid mission. And he said pointedly that Russia must not interfere with aid arriving in Georgia by air, land or water

However, minutes after Mr. Bush’s comments, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia characterized the import of the American aid as “definitely an American military presence” and called it a “turning point.”…

“What I expected specifically from America was to secure our airport and to secure our seaports,” he went on, concluding that the American presence would do so. “The main thing now is that the Georgian Tbilisi airport will be permanently under control.”

Saakashvili is spinning hard to make this look like a U.S. cavalry charge, going so far as to call it a “military-humanitarian operation” and claiming that Georgian ports will now be under U.S. “control.” The Pentagon quickly denied it, although given Bush’s warning to Russia not to interfere with aid, things are going to get mighty dicey if they move on Tbilisi and take the airport. Charles Johnson says he’s hearing news reports that the Russian army’s within 15 miles of the city; I haven’t seen anything like that, although I did see earlier that Russia started moving towards the city before veering off in another direction. As of this morning, Russian troops occupied Gori and others were crossing into South Ossetia; Human Rights Watch claims they’re burning villages in the territory populated by ethnic Georgians.

My reaction to Bush’s announcement was the same as Ace’s, and doubtless what Saakashvili has in mind: They’re going to insert a token American force, a la South Korea, as a “tripwire” that the Russians dare not cross lest it provoke a wider war. Per the emphasis on the mission being purely humanitarian, it sounds like Bush is eager to douse that speculation — but needless to say, if U.S. troops do get caught in the crossfire, it’s anyone’s guess what happens. If you believe the Times, the U.S. brought this all on itself by sending “mixed messages” to Saakashvili that don’t really sound all that mixed. Publicly the administration’s shown consistent solidarity, and privately they’ve made it abundantly clear that he shouldn’t do anything nutty like, er, invade South Ossetia. Assuming that’s true, he’s playing dumb, going on CNN this morning to say he appreciated McCain’s encouraging words yesterday but that words don’t mean much vis-a-vis those all-important deeds they’re counting on.

Well, he’s got some deeds now. Stand by for updates as the Cold War II brinksmanship escalates. Exit quotation: “We understand that this current Georgian leadership is a special project of the United States, but one day the United States will have to choose between defending its prestige over a virtual project or real partnership which requires joint action.”

Update: This warrants the always rare double exit quotation. Sit back, close your eyes, and meditate on this while you run through your mental list of despots, terrorists, and assorted other cretins that Russia’s been selling weapons to for decades:

“Bush’s speech said nothing of how Georgia was armed all these years, including by the United States,” [Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov] said, adding, “We have more than once warned our partners that this is a dangerous game.”

Update: Well, we’re now in a position where one or the other side is going to have to call the other’s bluff or lose face.

Just the position you want to be in with two superpowers armed to the teeth with nukes.

“This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. “Things have changed.”

Update: Putin’s just taunting them now.

“Come with us, beauty, we’re going to Tbilisi!” one of the soldiers bellowed at a photographer in a sleeveless shirt along the road. Other troops grinned and brandished their weapons, and one hung his bare feet out the back of a truck. Another, a machine gunner riding atop an armored vehicle, wore a bandanna and a black T-shirt with the word “Russia” emblazoned in the red, blue and white colors of the national flag.

Asked from the side of the road, the soldiers shouted that their destination was Tbilisi — “With no detours,” one said. But then they veered abruptly into a field about an hour’s drive from the capital and camped conspicuously within sight of the road before the sun went down.

The message was hard to miss: The Russian military is still the landlord in swaths of Georgia, and its forces remain in easy striking distance of the country’s capital.