08.15.08 Moral Indignation (The Russia-Georgia War)

The breathless outrage rings out from neocons and their fellow travellers on the op-ed (and editorial) pages of our great newspapers:

·     Robert Kagan decries “Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory,” going on to marvel at how Putin could possibly see a “flowering of democracy” in Georgia and “a few defensive interceptors” (i.e., ballistic missle defense) in Central Europe as “geopolitical and ideological encirclement.”

·     Ronald D. Asmus and Richard Holbrooke write, “Moscow has invaded a neighbor, an illegal act of aggression that violates the U.N. Charter” and are particularly peeved that this took place “as the Olympics were opening . . . violat[ing] the ancient tradition of a truce to conflict during the Games.”

·     Svante E. Cornell declares, “If Georgia is allowed to fall, governments across Eurasia will certainly take note, especially those — such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine — that have built ties with the West and sought closer integration in European institutions, drawing Moscow’s ire. Should we allow Russia to occupy Georgia or even just depose the Saakashvili government, the implications for America’s standing in Eurasia would be dire.” 

His proposed remedy is for “America [to] step up its campaign for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Should European countries reject the idea, America could designate them ‘major non-NATO allies,’ along the lines of Israel and Pakistan.”

·     Strobe Talbott accuses Russia of cynically using the West’s own rhetoric re Kosovo to justify its actions to come to South Ossetia’s aid.  Talbott holds that, while Kosovo was at Serbia’s mercy in the one case, “South Ossetia — even though it is on Georgian territory — has long been a Russian protectorate, beyond the reach of Saakashvili’s government.”

·     And the New York Times editorializes that “Georgia’s sovereignty must be guaranteed.”

Let’s take a serious look behind all this hyperventilation.  Of course, no one (except the Russians) is delighted by Moscow’s bullying of a small and (somewhat) democratic neighbor.  But does that make American bluster right and reasonable?  Of course not.

I. Hypocrisy

A. Invading a sovereign nation and seeking regime change, oh my!  Hmmm.  Who here can remember the most recent case of a nuclear-armed power invading a sovereign state for the purpose of overthrowing a regime? Can you say “Iraq?”

Of course, Saakashvili is a helluva lot more legitimate and democratic than Saddam.  Of course, just ‘cause it was a violation of international law when we did it doesn’t make Russia’s invasion of Georgia any more legitimate.  But just where do we get off lecturing others on how to behave on the world stage?

B. Preventing encirclement by regimes one doesn’t like? No way!  Can you say, “Monroe Doctrine?”  While the doctrine was originally meant to keep meddling European powers our of “our” hemisphere, the US has used it for 150 years as an excuse to undermine and overthrow every left-of-center government that has taken office. A few recent examples: Guatemala 1954, Cuba 1961, Chile 1973, Grenada 1983, Nicaragua 1980s, Venezuela 2004.  What is remarkable is not the dozens of completely illegitimate interventions the US has carried out in the region, but the fact that the US has not yet (as far as we can tell) tried to overthrow the current “unfriendly” government of Ecuador (but I would be surprised if we don’t have covert CIA operatives there now, trying to figure out the best course of action).

C. They had the gall to do it during the Olympics, how dare they?!  So, according to neocons, great powers are supposed to subordinate their interests to symbolism?  Tell that to the North Vietnamese who suffered under the infamous Christmas Bombing of 1972.  Yeah, right!

II. Getting History Wrong

A. Kosovo and South Ossetia.  So, remind me:  just how are the rights of South Ossetians different than those of the Kosovars?  While US neocons wax poetic about little Georgia’s fledgling democracy, I have yet to see a single one weigh in on how life for Ossetians has been (or would be) under Georgian rule.  Then, when Talbott tries to invoke the parallel as a straw man, he disregards a key fact: Georgia’s offensive against South Ossetia last week (whether provoked or not) would have made South Ossetia no longer “beyond the reach” of Georgia.

None of this is to suggest that Saakashvili is the equivalent of Milosevic; it is merely to suggest that the Ossetians might have legitimate desires not to be under Georgian control.  The very fact that they’ve decided to align themselves with Russia (by accepting Russian citizenship, for example) suggests that they must be pretty darn desperate to escape Georgia.

B. The Domino Theory: Back from the Dead.  Cornell’s warnings that if the US doesn’t take decisive action, the US will lose all influence in Eurasia sound eerily like the (il)logic that led us into Vietnam.  The idea that “losing” Vietnam to communism necessarily presaged the “loss” of all Asia was absurd at the time and has been thoroughly disproven by facts on the ground.  Neocons don’t care about facts, though, in their search for theories to justify more self-defeating aggression.

III. Stupid “Remedies” & Paper Tigers

A. Hurry ‘em into NATO.  What is the basis for an alliance?  It is, more or less, a guarantee that all members will come to the defense of any one member if it is attacked.  So, raise your hand if you are ready to go fight the Russians in Georgia!  How ‘bout you, New York Times Editorial Board?  You say we need to guarantee Georgian sovereignty?  How, exactly do you suggest we do that?  If you and your children aren’t ready to shed your own blood, do you really think that the US has any soldiers to spare from our Iraq morass and the half-assed war in Afghanistan?

And if we actually declare Georgia to be vital to our interests and fail to protect it with our blood?  Can you say, “paper tiger”?

B. Kick ‘em out of the G8.  So, excluding Russia from our various gentlemen’s clubs is gonna help?  This presupposes, of course, that Russia needs prestige (and our approval) more than we need Russia for such things as helping contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and stopping international nuclear proliferation.  It must feel so satisfying for neocons to tout tit-for-tat games.  But, ideologues are rarely able to think beyond the next move: what happens when our tits get repaid by their tats?  We’re not the only ones who can pick up our marbles and go home.

C. Boycott the Sochi 2014 Olympics.  Oh puleeeze!  Like our announcing now that we aren’t gonna come over and play is going to stop the Russians from pursuing their interests!  Like it makes any sense at all to be talking about punishments to be inflicted six years hence.  Maybe we’ll have another war of aggression of our own at that point and our own Olympics looming, who knows?


Bluster from the neocons and the mainstream media aside, there is precious little the US can do about Russia’s invasion of Georgia.  This doesn’t mean we ought to pretend we like it, but it does mean we ought to be very, very careful about what we threaten, lest we lose what shred of credibility we have left in the international arena. 

Sure, we can help tarnish Russia’s prestige a bit, but the question is how we do that in ways

·     that truly disincent future aggression

·     that we are actually willing to follow through on, and

·     that don’t end up hurting our interests more than they hurt the Russians.

Sadly, your Blogger is much, much better at pointing out the flaws in others’ logic than he is at devising his own.  But, then again, he isn’t running for president or appearing in major newspapers pretending that he has the answer.

©2008 Keith Berner

Explore posts in the same categories: International Affairs

2 Comments on “08.15.08 Moral Indignation (The Russia-Georgia War)”

  1. Blake Says:

    Keith we are unlikely bedfellows in that we see pretty much eye to eye on this. We need to tread very carefully with Russia here. As much as I hate to admit it, Georgia might be gone from our grasp for the time being. Intentionally provoking the Russias by trying to expidite Georgian and Ukraine membership in NATO would not be a wise move. Although we could turn up the rhetoric and push for it during meetings, assuming at least one NATO member will shoot it down, making us look good for pushing it and getting us off the hook at the same time. But I have always been a proponent of spheres of influence. If one thing the last 20 years as taught us, this world is too big for one nation to be able to handle policing it in its entirety. We need help. And as much as it pains me to admit this, Russia can provide that help. Our invested short and middle term interests lie in the Middle East. We do not have the compacity to continue the agressive foreign policy in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses while simultaneously conducting a war in two different countries. We need to back down somewhere, and for the time being that needs to be in the Caucuses and Eastern Europe.


  2. Keith Berner Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Blake. We are not unlikely bedfellows on this or much else.

    See my latest two posts about the GOP’s awkward coalition. The only leg of that 3-1/2-legged contraption you (think) you belong to is the hyper greedy. You’re a solid liberal on social policy and a pragmatic realist in international affairs. You work for an NGO. You like money and enjoy making a show of that, partly to antagonize all your liberal friends and colleagues. But, it won’t be long before you realize that small tax hikes on the 1/2% of wealthiest Americans don’t hurt your own standard of living and also begin to embrace the reality that environmental degradation is actually the biggest threat to your comfortable existence.

    I’m not predicting that you will ever have great compassion for the less fortunate, What I’m saying is that (a) your current persona of greedy mogul is partly for show and (b) that even to the extent that you *are* greedy, that greed will become less persuasive to you over time as other things outweigh it in importance.


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