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August 11, 2008


"If John McCain wants to make this election turn on his Russia policy, that's a debate Obama should welcome."

OMG NO! Absolutely NOT! - Whatever the realities of situation wrt Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia/Russia might be, it is obvious that the neocons and their Republican enablers are going to seize this opportunities with desperation - and attempt to shift the debate over to the "moral" plane: i.e. who can indulge in the worst Russki-bashing, and who can blather away about "freedom" "Democracy" and "allies" the loudest. "Policy" is one thing - and if the GOP were serious about debating it on hard-and-fast grounds, that would be OK. But since McCain and the GOP have so little success in foreign-policy initiatives to run on, it's not hard foresee them latching onto the Georgian imbroglio to a) loudly trumpet their own vigorous Russophobia and dedication to "freedom" and b) just as loudly lambaste Obama and the Democrats as pusillanimous appeasers. And with enough repetition, it just might work.

This is an election year, hilzoy: rationality is out the window.

It is looking more and more like this is going to end up with a Russian puppet in Georgia. We can't do anything about it, so I suppose the next question is: Is the Ukraine doomed? Is there anything to be done about the Ukraine?

Hilzoy, you can remove the past tense about him and Georgia's NATO membership.

"NATO’s decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision. "

And yeah it starts off with

"Concerns about what occurs there might seem distant and unrelated to the many other interests America has around the world. And yet Russian aggression against Georgia is both a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance to the United States of America.

"Georgia is an ancient country, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion."

Well, Georgia also gave the world a certain Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a staunch ally of the US (at certain times). [/acid eating through keyboard]

The US can hardly claim to be a neutral arbiter in this matter - that would be like the USSR playing referee in the Cuban missile crisis.

Hartmut: Don't forget Lavrenty Beria...

Though, for the record, I should say that I think Beria and Stalin's origins have nothing to do with anything.

So McCain wants to go to war with Russia as well as Iran (while of course maintaining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) -- anywhere else?

let's take a poll:

all Americans who favor going to war with Russia over a border dispute in a country that 90% of you didn't know was even a country until last week, raise your hand.

six of you?

ok then. McCain, STFU. it's time for rational people to take control of our foreign policy.

Jay is correct.
When Lithuania was struggling for independence, my late mother told me she was a proud Lithuanian. I knew it was hopeless to remind her of the Holocaust. Either she was not aware or had forgotten, that it was the Lithuanians, under Nazi supervision, who had murdered her grandparents, and all her other relatives that she had never met.

My mother was a very typical America. The mention of Russia will confuse many people.

This is either going to be a "teaching moment" regarding the current limits of US power for our electorate, or a disaster in the making with the potential to open up a much wider conflict. I don't think that comparisons with July 1914 are out of bounds here.

Or, in the words of the redoubtable Ace: "Apparently someone looked it up and told Obama whose side we are on."

A presidential candidate, or a president, doesn't have 'sides'. They have the national interest, and the Constitution.

I think the Panamanians are watching the news and rolling their eyes.

A small country with a bellicose, pain-in-the-ass president, a slice of the country with ambiguous sovereignty, and a superpower neighbor to the north who has been known to use invasion and incursion as a form of international diplomatic semaphore...

FWIW, I thought Stalin was specifically Ossetian, not that it makes a difference.

McCain and Obama should really knock off the campaign rhetoric on the issue, and realize that they are United States Senators. Both of their statements showed solidarity with Georgia, as Russia was the clear aggressor, and they should be united behind a strong, diplomatic message from America. Of course this would be too much to expect in an election year, and they'll most likely continue arguing about minutiae as the international community views our government as hopelessly fractured and incapable of accomplishing anything for our allies in Georgia.

Dear Hilzoy,

Thank you for this well-balanced post from the liberal perspective. Because, I just finished the HuffPo piece that McCain orchestrated this whole conflict to get more votes in the election, and it was totally obnoxious, IMHO.

LT -- On what are you basing your statement that "Russia was the clear aggressor"? Details still seem to be hazy, but a number of commentors I've read (including Belgravia Dispatch, CNN, and Christian Science Monitor) suggest that Ossetia has been a de facto Russian protectorate for a number of years, and Saakashvili gambled (and lost) on a quick-strike option to cut them off and reclaim the territory. Russia's response appears to be disproportionate, as hilzoy observed, but I don't think it's clear at all that they started it.

I agree with Jay C, McCain's ravings are terrible policy but will probably be good politics. Bear in mind that the NYT is already allowing the Georgian foreign ministry to write its headlines.

Frankly I'm one of those who doesn't see any indication that the Russians have done much to be critical of here so far. Sure, there in it for cynical reasons, but as far as we can tell as of this moment they've played a very canny game vis-à-vis international politics. The Georgians pretty blatantly attempted a sneak attack after announcing a cease fire, and what they did in South Ossetia before being kicked out certainly looks a hell of a lot like ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, images of death and destruction within Georgia proper, if you look at the photographs, are always different shots of the same two or three apartment buildings hit in Gori. I'm not saying that's not terrible, but it's well-established now that that was unintentional collateral damage from attacks aimed at military targets.

The Russian bombing within Georgia is legitimat, IMHO, because it all seems to be aimed at legitimate military and infrastructure targets. Georgia is not a big place; if Georgian tanks can drive from Gori to the front line in less than an hour, it's perfectly valid to hit them on the way. And the Georgians are indeed reinforcing the front line. Despite their calls for a cease fire now, it's entirely plausible that they might try to retake at least the chunk of South Ossetia they held before this began, in the hours before an agreed cease-fire was to talk hold.

As for Abkhazia, well that's fair game too. In both of these territories, the situation was going to end either with a bloody Georgian "reunification" or by the Georgians getting kicked out. Right now, kicking them out of Abkhazia when they don't have the forces to fight back seems like the least bloody solution, as well as coming closest to an approximation of what we might think of as the popular will of the local inhabitants.

The basic logical fallacy at play here is the assumption that because Georgia is a much smaller country, it's somehow the good guy. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people too.

I just hope, for humanitarian reasons above all, that the Russians continue to play this smart and don't get carried away.

six of you?

Quite the optimist, aren't you?

Give Fox News and the neocons, and their copycat enablers at the other networks about 3 weeks to work on this, and 30-40% of the US electorate will be convinced that it is time for the big showdown with the Russian Bear that we were cheated of back in 1989-1991.

Our very way of life is at stake. Also, the Russians caused the subprime crisis (you did know that they hold a lot of GSE paper, didn't you?).

As I wrote somewhere else, why don't we voodoo* Stalin out of his tomb in the Kremlin walls and make hime the arbiter? ;-)
Georgia an official ally? Like Israel**?

*deliberate rape of language
**Yes, I know.

The pipe dream Washington has been selling the Georgians for the past 5 years is exactly akin to the deluded bravado they peddled to the American public before Iraq.

I'll tell you who's really watching this with alarm - the Kurds and the Awakening sheikhs. Sooner or later, once they've dealt with their Shia rivals, the Baghdad government is going to come looking to reunify the rest of Iraq, and if Georgia is any indication then Washington is going to sell the Kurds and the Sunnis down the river. IMHO, if you parse the public diplomacy (unnamed "senior state department officials" and all that), Washington is telling Putin to have Ossetia and Abkhazia, but go no further territorially. The negotiation seems to be about whether Saakashvili gets to keep his job.

Incidentally, you know Georgia started this because American diplomats aren't even making a pretense of contesting that point.

Of course this would be too much to expect in an election year, and they'll most likely continue arguing about minutiae as the international community views our government as hopelessly fractured and incapable of accomplishing anything for our allies in Georgia.

Ummm...we are incapable of accomplishing anything for our allies in Georgia. That is true now. That would still be true if Obama and McCain made a joint statement about Georgia expressing their complete agreement. We are incapable of accomplishing anything because we don't have power to compel Russia to do much. I mean, we're not going to start a nuclear war over Georgia; that's insane and that option is not on the table. We're not going to launch a conventional war against Russia because...we don't have the forces to do so, Russia has a far superior logistics position, and that plan is only slightly less insane than launching a nuclear war. We can't use economic sanctions against Russia because it is a major oil producing country and doing so would either increase gas prices (which looks like political suicide to me) or utterly humiliate us as all of our European allies refuse to join the boycott (which would deprive Russia of nothing).

We don't have realistic options for helping Georgia, even if we assumed that Georgia's leadership acted with enough intelligence and wisdom to merit assistance.

I'm kind of astounded that this sort of analysis isn't obvious to...well, everyone really. The trivial optics of Presidential candidates disagreeing really pales in comparison with the limitations of our capabilities.

Nothing devalues your mutual defensive treaty faster than extending it to countries that you are not going to defend should they get into a conflict with their most plausible opponent. During the Cold War, it was plausible that the USA would come to Western Europe's defense in the event of a Soviet invasion. Plausible, but by no means certain, hence the British, French and (until the 1960s) West German determination to acquire their own nuclear deterrent. As Charles de Gaulle once famously, and uncomfortably directly put it: would the Americans really be willing to see New York destroyed to save Paris?

As we know the answer now, the US would clearly not be willing to see New York destroyed, or even risk a great deal less, to save Tbilisi. So why even entertain such a commitment? Maybe Obama's advisor's can come up with a way to frame this so that it would actually resonate with the general public, because McCain's longstanding bear-baiting is so incontestably stupid it really merits debunking.

As for all of the valid sins McCain accuses the Russian government of, I concur. But I would for him to explain how the behaviour of the Georgian government is qualitatively better. If we are going to pick between two similarly unpleasant regimes, why not pick the much more important one, whose much more advanced level of economic development also makes it much more likely that the country might soon become more legitimately democratic?

Nothing devalues your mutual defensive treaty faster than extending it to countries that you are not going to defend should they get into a conflict with their most plausible opponent.

Bingo. Thank you, that's what I've been harping on too.

Even assuming that the moral ambiguities of the current crisis can be sorted out (given how thick and fast the propaganda from both sides is flowing I for one have close to zero confidence that we really know exactly what has happened to trigger this crisis with sufficient confidence to do so as of yet), there are very real and severe limitations on our ability to act to influence the outcome, and pretending otherwise will only serve to harm the very ideals we are attempting to support.

That way lies madness.

This is Hungary 1956 redux*, but this time it isn't certain that there are grown-ups making the key decisions. We could really use some Eisenhower Republicans right now, or perhaps James Baker and the GHB crowd.

*And if we play our cards wrong we may find out that the analogy switches over to Suez 1956, when our major creditors pull the plug on our independence with regard to making foreign policy.

I agree with TLTinABQ and byrningman:
"terrible policy but good politics" is really about all the Republicans have left to run with AFA foreign affairs are concerned. Well, that and war-scaring, but what else is new...

Despite the distance of the conflict, its general tangentiality to US national interests, and (pace the righteous bleatings from partisans of one side or another) shared blame on both parties: when the neocon Noise Machine is done with their reframing of the issues, it will probably read like the plot of a 19th-Century novel: Noble Caucasian Fighters Bravely Battling for their Ancient Freedoms Against the Wicked Empire of Muscovy. "Taras Bulba" with Kalashnikovs.

And yes, I know, "Taras Bulba" was Cossacks-fighting-Poles, not Georgians-fighting-Russians. Meh. The flags and costumes may change: the story stays the same.

We can already see the narrative start to take shape: check out (OMG) Bill Kristol in the New York Times

Along with Davis X. Machina, I was struck by this statement from a right-wing commentator:

Apparently someone looked it up and told Obama whose side we are on.

This represents such a fundamental and dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of war. The American right views war as a game with winners and losers. That's one reason, I suppose, why they are so eager to unleash the dogs of war. What they don't understand is that war isn't a game, that all parties in a war always lose, and that you don't take sides in a war unless you really have to.

War is rather like a business transaction (von Clausewitz used that metaphor) in which you expend blood and treasure to obtain some desired policy goal. You start by asking, "What's our policy goal?" In this case, would the goal of military operations be to restore the status quo ante, or to return the rebellious regions to Georgia? In the former case, we might be able to accomplish this goal with diplomacy, but to stop the Russian military, we'd need to commit a lot of forces and expend much blood (hundreds to thousands of lives) and much treasure (at least hundreds of billions of dollars). In the latter case, we'd better figure on thousands of casualties and as much as a trillion dollars. Is it worth it? I don't think so.

Bbbbbut I saw the President tell Bob Costas that he'd told Putin in no uncertain terms to knock it off. No one could have forseen that this would be insufficient.

How does Bill Kristol still have a job?

What they don't understand is that war isn't a game, that all parties in a war always lose, and that you don't take sides in a war unless you really have to.

With the notable exception of people in Hawaii circa Dec. 1941, the victims of 9-11, post-1861 Southerners, Native Americans, Mormons, and a few other groups singled out for massacre, this has not been the historical experience for most Americans since the War of 1812. We are unfamiliar with the direct effects of warfare on US territory and are used to suffering little or no damage to our civilian economy and infrastructure, not to mention the immensely beneficial side effects felt during WW1 and WW2.

From the US perspective, wars do have winners, and we expect to be the winners. I wish we could un-learn this false lesson the easy way (via knowledge of what others have experienced and empathy for them) rather than the hard way, but it is slow going thus far.


I was just joking with a friend that McCain's dumb Georgia speech was probably cobbled together from Wikipedia, never believing that he was so pathetic for that really to be the case.

If the Obama campaign doesn't nail him to the wall for this, then, well, I dunno. But they should, it's so easy: For a guy who doesn't know how to use the internets, John McCain sure knows how to copy his foreign policy from Wikipedia.

The American right views war as a game with winners and losers.

I wish they were that serious. The Kristol wing of the right views war as a professional wrestling match, with an arbitrarily determined good guy and bad guy (who could just as well switch places at the whim of the promoter--Hussein and bin Laden have no more of a fixed moral valence in this scheme than Dusty Rhodes or Hulk Hogan did), a lot of noise and spectacle, and no visible real-world consequences.

"as Russia was the clear aggressor,"

How's that? Georgia invaded South Ossetia and leveled the capital. Did the Russians hypnotize them into doing that first?

"FWIW, I thought Stalin was specifically Ossetian, not that it makes a difference."

Stalin was born in Gori.

How's that? Georgia invaded South Ossetia and leveled the capital. Did the Russians hypnotize them into doing that first?

That would depend on if you think that retaining sovereignty over a slice of land that the entire U.N. recognizes as a part of Georgia is a legitimate function of a democratically-elected government. Plus, despite the fact that Georgia withdrew its forces from South Ossetia, Russian troops continue to advance.

The article you link claims:

However, fighting is still continuing tonight despite the Georgian offer of ceasefire. A Reuters reporter in the town of Gori, just south of South Ossetia, reported heavy bombardment of areas around Tskhinvali this evening, although it was not clear who was firing.

The AP has eyewitnesses to continuing fighting earlier today inside of South Ossetia:

Georgia had pledged a cease-fire, but it rang hollow Monday. An AP reporter saw a small group of Georgian fighters open fire on a column of Russian and Ossetian military vehicles outside Tskhinvali, triggering a 30-minute battle. The Russians later said all the Georgians were killed.

In Georgia, apparently, "cease-fire" means "period in which to most advantageously launch attacks". It is also unclear that Russian troops "continue to advance". Russian troops that had taken action against a military base in Senaki returned to Abkhazia. I believe the normal military term for this is a retreat, is it not?

As for sovereignty, it was in name only. Presumably you believe it would be legitimate for China to raze the city of Taipei in order to regain control of Taiwain?

From the AP article: In the city of Gori, an AP reporter heard artillery fire and Georgian soldiers warned locals to get out because Russian tanks were approaching. Hundreds of terrified residents fled toward Tbilisi, many trying to flag down passing cars.

Doesn't sound like the Russians are stopping...

This is just the beginning of another long-drawn war. Georgia is up for grabs. GW should send in his troops to defend Georgia’s territorial integrity. The Americans have been taken out and are likely to be hit from all sides on all frontiers. It will be worse than any war mankind has ever seen. New high-tech weapons have started rolling out to be tested on all kind of terrains from sand dunes to rocky mountains to ice-capped glaciers.

You never play deadly games with a giant neighbour at the insistence of a war-mongering savage power. You will be leveled to the ground and beg for survival.

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