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August 13, 2008

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he reason I focus on what we could have done is not that I blame the US for this, which would be silly, but that as an American, I am interested in what my country might have done to prevent this.

Not telling Georgia they'd be accepted into NATO after their MAP was rejected in Bucharest would have been a really good place to start. Our tweaking of Georgia aside, that was the thing that really set Russia off and it was entirely uncalled for.

Incidentally, there is a very interesting account at the GOS claiming that Russia (Putin specifically) was just as surprised by the response as the U.S. was. I think that something else is going on here that we're still missing.

I think the more interesting question is what we were telling Russia.

I trust the McClatchy story in the sense that I believe someone in the administration did tell the McClatchy reporter this, but it sounds like spin to me.

We were >a href="http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/World/2008/07/15/pf-6162566.html">conducting joint military exercises from July 15 until two days before the Georgian assault on South Ossetia (with the militaries of Georgia, Ukraine, and Ajerbaijan). It is therefore extremely difficult to believe that we had no idea that such an offensive might be coming. In the context of sharpening conflict over S. Ossetia and Abkhazia, the exercises were themselves provocative.

If we got such an impression, there would have been a number of ways of signaling that we would not support it. The traditional one is to cut back on scheduled joint exercises (something we are now doing with planned naval exercises with the Russians). It can happen mid-exercise; we cut them short, or send away half our participants. The message is unmistakable.

Another possibility would have been to state clearly that we would not be transporting their troops or equipment back to Georgia in C-17s in the event of any offensive moves.

To pick up on Charley's point, the McClatchy story itself is internally inconsistent:

At the same time, U.S. officials said that they believed they had an understanding with Russia that any response to Georgian military action would be limited to South Ossetia.

Riiiight. Why would such an understanding even come up if not for the prospect that a Georgian offensive in S. Ossetia might be happening with U.S. tacit approval?

The McClatchy story is pure ass-covering for a serious miscalculation of the Russian response on the part of the U.S. government.

Unbotched link to joint exercises story.

Not telling Georgia they'd be accepted into NATO after their MAP was rejected in Bucharest would have been a really good place to start.

Here is one of the things about discussion of foreign policy in the US that just make me want to scream sometimes. We are not the only active actors.
Other nations make decisions and do things, often for reasons having to do with their own domestic politics or their perceptions of the world, without necessarily doing so purely in reaction to our wants, needs, desires, policies, politics, etc. When we ignore or forget this, we can be really stupid and get blindsided by things we should have seen coming.

Has anybody considered how the Russians might have been perceiving the context leading up to this situation?

1 - Georgia and Russia are in conflict, both over specific issues (ethnic separatism in South Ossetia, etc.) and more broadly because Russia is rebuilding its regional power from the nadir of the 1990s and while Russian officials see Georgia as being in their historic zone of influence and control, Georgia is busy building ties to the West which would preclude that sort of relationship.

2 – Georgia is being groomed for admission into NATO, which will shield them from bullying by Russia, and greatly increase the risks (specifically the risks to Russia) associated with any possible future conflict between the two states.

3 - #2 has not yet happened, so they are not protected by NATO, not yet.

This is what is known as a “window of opportunity”. When a major power see a potential security threat, and a window of opportunity (which is in danger of closing in the near future) to deal with that threat, the results are entirely and depressingly predictable. I am not endorsing the morality of Russian actions, just pointing out that they were very predictable. Anyone with a decently informed knowledge of the power politics of great power rivalries and international diplomacy and military history could have told you that this would happen. We should have seen this coming.

I the German newspaper I read there was the speculation that Russian interior politics played a significant role here and that Putin kept Medvedev deliberately in the dark about what was going on down there.

I very much hope that some intrepid reporter is trying to figure out which is true.

Posted by hilzoy at 09:01 AM


Well, I do too: but I wouldn't hold my breath until it happens. I think TLT's "window of opportunity" for determining the course of the debate over the Georgian debacle is about to close. And the Administration and its enablers (including, most assuredly, the McCain campaign) is going to do its damnedest to make sure the issue is framed in one way and one way only: Georgia = good, Russia = bad.

Whatever signals/warning/assurances the Bush Administration may or may not have given the Georgian government prior to 8/7, they have ended up with egg (or gunpowder) on their faces, and will have serious backtracking/ass-covering to do keep whatever shreds of credibility they can. And if this entails making official policy of lauding the Georgians as Noble Democratic Freedom-Fighters, and savaging the Russians as the Barbaric Evil Empire, (and slamming ANY critics with a "pro-Russian" charge) so be it.

I wish I had enough faith in this country's media to believe that there actually were enough "intrepid reporters"* out there willing to cut through the fog of official BS and present the public with some sort of balanced analysis of this terrible little war: but I'm not very positive.


*aside from McClatchy, of course: but they are virtually the only ones

hilzoy,
Im not sure why all of your possible scenarios start with The officials quoted accurately describe the messages they sent to the Georgian government. Im not saying that this isn't the case, but I can certainly imagine "d)the officials quoted did not accurately describe the messages they sent to the Georgian government". If anyone did give this offensive some support (perhaps thinking that the Russians wouldn't respond so effectively), I can't imagine that they would own up to it now given what a disaster this has become.

Carleton - the post is about "what possibilities are consistent with [the reports above] being true?" The possibility that officials are lying is outside the hypothetical.

Quote fixed...

In particular, some of the neoconservatives, and members of Dick Cheney's coterie, seem to me to be more than capable of doing something like this. If they did, they have more blood on their hands.

Carleton: what G said. Basically, I'm rethinking my earlier post in light of the report from McClatchy, whose reporter I trust. Things would be different if that had been reported by, oh, Judith Miller.

I guess Im thinking that the reporter can be accurately relaying the info from the official without that official telling the truth- so trust in McClatchy isn't trust in the reliability of these statements themselves, just that they were in fact relayed by US officials.
I don't think that McClatchy has made that leap either, they've attributed the statements to officials rather than stating them as facts.

If the hypothetical is "if the *officials* are reliable" that's another story- but that's not a hypothetical Id care to embrace. Heck, at this point if we didn't discourage this strongly we probably *ought* to be lying about it. At least, I can see a good case for it.

That isn't to criticize McClatchy for he said-she said reporting; at this point there's plenty of news value in reporting the official position of the US government.

@hilzoy: Trusting McClatchy is not the same as trusting the statements by administration officials that they are passing along.

"We told them and told them". Yet clearly, we didn't "tell" them by way of actions, only words. Governments restrict their signaling to words when they are in fact prepared to see those warnings ignored.

It remains to be seen how accurate your characterization of events is, particularly 3 and 4:

1 - Russia had plainly been trying to provoke this sort of attack.
2 - Georgia was incredibly stupid to give Russia what it wanted.
3 - Russia's response has been really excessive.
4 - as a result, thousands of people are dead.
5 - Georgia's independence is seriously compromised.
6 - many of Russia's other neighbors have a lot less room to maneuver than they did before.
7 - our own interests have been set back badly.

Carleton made my point while I was posting.

It was extremely unnerving to watch Saakashvili interviewed on the BBC the other night. He had summoned the reporter to his office in the early morning; he was flat-out raving at several points. ("We've downed twenty planes", he said several times, and at the end.)

The reporter handled himself fairly well, but there was the clear body language of treading carefully with someone who might be on the verge of cracking, or who has already done so.

Even now Saakashvili is projecting the U.S. "humanitarian aid" shipments as a commitment to protect the ports and airspace, i.e. as the military aid he thinks he was promised. Bush gives no appearance of discouraging him. There's a serious risk of us getting in deeper for perceived Republican electoral gain, which will only drag the discourse to the right.

That's what happens when the Serious People won't speak the unfashionable truth that we aren't, in fact, all Georgians now. A historic opportunity has been missed to call the Bush-McCain policy on its recklessness, which is Goldwaterian in scale.

Why would such an understanding even come up if not for the prospect that a Georgian offensive in S. Ossetia might be happening with U.S. tacit approval?

Oh, no, you can contruct a dialogue where there's no prior US knowledge of the thing, in which we more or less agree that the Russians can defend their peacekeepers, in the knowledge that any Georgian incursion into the autonomous areas would be outside the US security perimeter.

Sort of like Dean Acheson's January 12, 1950 speech describing the US security perimeter in the North Pacific.

Note for the record: the reason I think we should have tried to prevent...

Let's see....yep. As I expected. Not a single word about what the people living in South Ossetia actually wanted, even though they had been de facto independent for almost two decades, that they had been semi-autonomous even under the Soviet Union and had demonstrated repeatedly through word and deed that they did not wish to be a part of Georgia.

It's all just petty politics. It's kind of odd that people still feel the need to make up just-so stories about why this group or that doesn't deserve freedom.

Just to make it easier, I took now_what's comment to make a template

As I expected. Not a single word about what the people living in [insert location name here] actually wanted, even though they had been de facto independent for [length of time], that they had been [insert historical fact that bolsters point] and had demonstrated repeatedly through word and deed that they did not wish to be a part of [power that is oppressing them].

HTH

And what precisely would be wrong with that template? Which nations, exactly, that are de facto independent and wish to remain that way do you wish to be invaded by force and then ruled by occupying countries without regard to the desires of their residents?

Isn't that what NATO is set up to prevent? And isn't that why NATO requires prospective members to settle such squabbles before entrance and resolve to solve them peacefully in the future?

now_what: right, I didn't mention what the people of South Ossetia wanted. Why? Because I was explaining why I was focussing on what we said to Georgia, and why that didn't mean that I blamed Georgia, as opposed to blaming both Georgia and Russia. It didn't occur to me to blame the people of South Ossetia, and on reflection it still doesn't. Nor do I think that their desires excuse what either Georgia or Russia did. So I don't see why it would have been relevant to that paragraph. Relevant to a lot of other things, yes; but to what I was writing about here?

There is no problem with the template if you just want to fill comments with boilerplate assertions of self righteousness, which is kind of the point. I'm sure anyone could fill in that template with tens of situations and have the same argumentative standing.

Relevant to a lot of other things, yes; but to what I was writing about here?

You ask, "(A)s an American, I am interested in what my country might have done to prevent this". Is not one thing your country might have done to prevent it the adoption of a more consistent line about the rights of autonomous nations to be free from the violent imposition of foreign rule against their citizens wishes?

"Why would such an understanding even come up if not for the prospect that a Georgian offensive in S. Ossetia might be happening with U.S. tacit approval?"

Because that's what prudent diplomats do. I don't see anything remotely necessarily sinister about it.

"Which nations, exactly,"

Define "nation."

Define "nation."

My gang yay, your gang boo.

How big does the new nation have to be? Does any subterritory whose ethnic composition differs from that of the surrounding nation count?

How overwhelming does the percentage of the ethnic group seeking its own nation have to be within that area?

How long must that situation have applied, especially if (as is frequently the case) the percentage has been affected by ethnic cleansing or shipping in large numbers of new residents of a particular ethnic group?

What guarantees must the new government make about the rights of residents of the prospective new nation who would be in the minority after independence but are in the majority in the "oppressing" nation from which independence is sought? (I guess we don't need to worry too much about that as long as they're able to break off their own subsubterritory into another new nation, even if it's only a few blocks within a city.)

How overwhelming does the percentage of the ethnic group seeking its own nation have to be within that area?

What guarantees must the new government make

Seeking? I was not talking about new governments, I was talking about nations that were already independent. I was not raising the question of when it was acceptable for a group of people to form their own government. I was raising the question of when it was acceptable to violently invade a de-facto independent nation and subjugate it.

The answers expressed in the last few days range from "It's fine, just make sure you've got back-up" to "It depends on how it will affect the balance of power with some third party".

Which is pathetic. The US giving the Russians the stage to play-act at being the guarantors of freedom against troops funded, armed, equipped, and aided by the US.

Heck of a job.

National leaders do stupid things and go to war for dumb reasons all the time.

Yamamoto told everyone he could that Japan could not win a war with the USA, but Japan decided to go to war anyway.

Hitler's generals told him not to go to war with the Western allies in 1939 but he did so anyway.

The French told the USA not to go to war in Vietnam but the USA did so anyway.

Saakashvili's gambit falls into the same category- ignore all objective advice, and roll the dice hoping for the best case scenario, which would be that the West would ignore its own misgivings and ride in to save Georgia. It failed disastrously, but its not really Bush's fault.

Again, Georgia should look to the example of Finland and just look to survive on whatever terms it can get. That's tough, but its the only real option.

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