It was just like the old days. Before Georgia's parliamentary elections, the state television repeatedly showed a long documentary of President Eduard Shevardnadze shaking hands with Washington's movers and shakers, from George Bush Sr to George II. My favourite clip was of Condi Rice rushing from her desk to hug and kiss the 75-year-old star of the last act of the cold war.
Yet this TV reality could not mask what every Georgian knew. America's affections were no longer with Shevardnadze, whatever his services had been to the destruction of the Soviet Union before 1991. His most vociferous opponent, Mikhail Saakashvili, was routinely filmed in front of a display of US diplomas and awards. To reinforce the point, the US ambassador, Richard Miles, spent his days visiting the opposition. When he went to denounce the conduct of the elections to Shevardnadze personally, the official photograph recorded a look of distaste on his face as he put maximum distance between himself and the presidential handshake.
Miles is a veteran of regime change in the Balkans. When he proffers his credentials, any head of state should make sure their Swiss bank account is well stocked.
The slow-motion fall of a petty tyrant in a small tinpot state at the behest of Washington is a scenario played out so often in recent years that it is easy to miss the significance of Shevardnadze's impending ruin. If the darling of the 1990s can be cast aside, which US protege is safe?
After he returned to power following the first post-Soviet coup in January 1992, Shevardnadze was an icon of America's post-communist claims to be promot- ing democracy, prosperity and human rights. He seemed untouchable. Those who pointed out the routine fraud of his elections or the horrors of his prisons were denounced by the US State Department. In 1995, I visited the isolator prison in Tbilisi with a senior official. Every prisoner had TB. You could smell the vileness of the place outside the walls. The Georgian official retched on leaving the building. And the US National Democratic Institute gave Shevardnadze its Medal of Freedom. Richard Perle told me: "He is one of ours."
Today the National Democratic Institute is behind Saakashvili, who has threatened the medal-winner with the fate of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu if he doesn't leave office quickly. Shevardnadze knows the Ceausescu precedent well. He was the Soviet foreign minister who pulled the rug out from under old-time Stalinists such as Ceausescu. Whether he was carrying out Gorbachev's or Bush's policy was unclear. Once Ceausescu, too, could do no wrong in Washington's eyes; he even stayed with the Queen in 1978, but then lost his usefulness as Shevardnadze's rose in Moscow.
Uncomfortable continuities exist between the west's cold war and post-cold war foreign policy. Georgia is rerunning the Romanian scenario, as an impoverished and desperate population seeks salvation from a leader once lauded in the west as a hero. Whatever the popular discontent at home, Washington casts the deciding vote, simply by cutting the foreign aid that every regime needs to funnel cash to its security forces.
Over the past decade, America has repeatedly endorsed, then denounced, post-communist rulers from Albania to central Asia. No matter how lavish the praise from Washington, no ruler can rest on his laurels. Even a Shevardnadze can outlive his usefulness.
Like all revolutions, America's self-proclaimed global revolution of freedom has a grim tendency to devour its child-ren. Glancing from the past guest list of the American Enterprise Institute to its current target list of tyrants shows the Orwellian nature of the most influential pro-Bush think-tank.
Acting as the ideological enforcers of the Bush administration, the American Enterprise Institute is a kind of Cominform of the new world order. Its so-called scholars are the inquisitors of a global regime. Minutes of their foreign seminars are more like sitting in on a hate session from China's cultural revolution than a political science class at Yale. Participants rise to denounce the hate figure of the day or to endorse a visiting dignitary favoured by the regime. There is an overwhelming stench of ideological conformity.
Washington think-tanks promote not pluralism, but a Stalinist-style dogmatism with eulogised conformists and excommu-nicated heretics. This show-trial mentality is hardly surprising, as the American Enterprise Institute brings the ideological successors of McCarthy and renegade leftists together with emigres educated in the Soviet bloc. The State Department and CIA execute their verdicts.
Stalin's hegemony over the Soviet bloc was expressed in frequent purges of puppet rulers. The new American order is marked by similar caprice. Only a Milton could do justice to Shevardnadze's feelings as the archangel of reform hurtles down from the pinnacle of favour.
Modern Washington's nihilism is breathtaking. Unknown to most Americans, their rulers rampage through the world on the back of pious rhetoric about freedom with blithe indifference to the fate of ordinary people. Regime change always offers more pain than gain. There is bitter truth in the Romanian saying: "The change of rulers is the joy of fools."
Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford