As if the outgoing administration of US President George W Bush didn’t already have enough on its plate, the question of whether

and how to re-arm Georgia in the aftermath of its thrashing last month by Russia is moving steadily up its increasingly crowded foreign policy agenda.

Moscow has already signaled any move to provide the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili with advanced weapons that he has long sought — including powerful hand-held anti-tank rockets and Stinger surface-to-air missiles that contributed heavily to Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago — will significantly increase tensions with Washington, which soared to a post-Cold War high in the wake of the Russian intervention.

But, besides pledging to continue its push for Georgia’s admission to NATO — something with which Washington’s European allies would have to go along — the Bush administration has so far declined to make any promises in regard to military aid. Indeed, even Vice President Dick Cheney, who had reportedly pushed hard within the administration for sending such advanced equipment to Georgia even before last month’s war, refrained from making any promises Thursday during his high-profile visit to Georgia’s capital.

“Over time, I’m sure, people will look at what happened with the military here and what the needs are,” an official who accompanied Cheney on his four-hour stay in Tbilisi said on the vice president’s plane. “But I think the focus for the moment is on the humanitarian and long-term economic needs.”

In his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination Thursday night, Sen. John McCain called for “solidarity” with Georgia in a speech that was light on foreign policy issues. While McCain has not explicitly endorsed filling Saakashvili’s wish list, some of his key neo-conservative advisers, such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), have pressed the administration to take such a course. Their appeal has been supported by two of McCain’s closest Senate colleagues.

“Specifically, the Georgian military should be given the antiaircraft and antiarmor systems necessary to deter any renewed Russian aggression,” wrote independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, in the Wall Street Journal. “We avoided giving the types of security aid that could have been used to blunt Russia’s conventional onslaught. It is time for that to change,” according to the senators.

The administration’s relative caution appears motivated by several factors. Increasing tensions with Moscow further, according to senior officials and independent analysts, could seriously jeopardise other top foreign policy interests, including Washington’s hopes for applying additional pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear programme. It could prompt Russia to suspend an agreement that permits NATO to use Russian and Central Asian bases and air space to supply its troops in Afghanistan. — IPS