Every time the major party candidates now mention Russia/Georgia -- including in the debates -- there is full, unequivocal agreement on everything, all premised on the comic-book, Good v. Evil narrative that Georgia is our stalwart democratic ally which, through no fault of their own, was victimized by an expansionist, war-seeking Russia, and we owe them our full protection and unwavering support. There is never a word of criticism toward Georgia or an acknowledgment of the role it played in provoking the conflict, in starting the war. That is the truth that cannot be spoken.I made this point here at Jotman during the debates. First, when I live-blogged the first debate. And again, when the issue resurfaced in the second presidential debate. I live-jotted the latter debate also, typing my instant-reaction commentary in red:
BROKAW: Q: How to avoid another cold war?Watching the debate, it was evident that Obama was now talking about Russia like a foreign policy hawk. Obama's position had shifted considerably, however. When fighting broke out, whereas Obama had called upon "both sides" to use restraint; McCain blamed only the Russians. (The candidates' respective positions on the conflict in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of fighting are presented side-by-side at Time Magazine, and were discussed by Zogby of the Huffington Post.)
McCAIN: Russia's behavior outside norms. I warned about Putin. KGB in his eyes. (Not smart to attack a leader you might have to work with, painting him as another Hitler). Got to make Russia realize penalties for naked aggression into tiny Georgia. (Use sticks, says nothing about carrots) Russians have to understand these activities not acceptable.
OBAMA: Resurgence of Russia, one of central issues. For most part I agree with Senator McCain. We have to provide moral support to all the nations that were former Soviet satellites. We have to help these countries improve their economies (What? I guess Obama is grasping for Polish-American votes or whatever. I don't think now is the time to extend foreign aid to more countries, and annoy Russia). Russia: energy key in dealing with Russia.
BROKAW: Russia = evil empire?
OBAMA: I would call it "evil behavior."
McCAIN: Maybe. If I say yes, that would mean we are back to the old cold war. But if I say "no," it excuses the bad behavior ... Georgia and Ukraine are gateways into Europe. Russia needs to recognize it's facing a firm USA. (I disagree completely with McCain, but I liked his response as sounded sincere or credible -- given that Obama was equally full of it on this one).
The present controversy concerning the US candidates' position comes down to three basic issues: 1) the role Georgia appears to have played in starting the war; 2) the question as to whether the US had given the Georgian president assurances of support, thus emboldening Georgian president Saakashvili to attack; and 3) the question as to whether Georgia is actually a democracy.
First, as to who started the war, the NY Times reports, "In the field, there is evidence from an extensive set of witnesses that within 30 minutes of Mr. Saakashvili’s order, Georgia’s military began pounding civilian sections of the city of Tskhinvali, as well as a Russian peacekeeping base there, with heavy barrages of rocket and artillery fire. The barrages all but ensured a Russian military response, several diplomats, military officers and witnesses said." Clearly, Georgia either caused the outbreak of the war, or at least shares a lot of the blame.
Second, as to whether the US emboldened Georgia to strike Russia, FT reports that the US had trained Georgian commandos involved in the initial strikes against Russian troops stationed in South Ossetia. Eyewitness reports tell of Georgian aggression. A scholar at Monterrey Institute claims that the Georgian operation had been planned months ahead. An August 8 article in The Nation by Mark Ames noted that the US and UK blocked a Russian-sponsored UN resolution opposing "the use of force" tabled at the outbreak of hostilities; Ames viewed this as evidence that "United States and Britain" were "backing Saakashvili's invasion." The same article refers to a Georgia-hosted investor's conference that was a propaganda coup for Georgia and evidence of advanced planning. Wired correspondent Nathan Hodge -- who like the Monterrey scholar and blogger Greenwald has been also been smeared for not being sufficiently anti-Russian in his coverage of events -- reported how things he had heard and saw during a 2006 visit to Georgia seemed indicative of a willingness on the part of Georgians to seriously consider military options in respect to South Ossetia.
Third, McCain tells us Georgia is a shining beacon of democracy, but this recent NY Times story shows why this label may not be appropriate. This video --from a blog post at Wired -- shows "a sound weapon" used against some protesters on Nov 7, 2007. The scenes in the video are far more suggestive of a police state than any budding democracy. Finally, the Economist Unit ranked Georgia 9th from the bottom, giving it a score of "104" on its 2006 Democracy Index. With that score, Georgia did not make the "Flawed Democracy" category.
Although it is largely tangential to these points, I really think American leaders should exercise a little bit of humility when it comes to interpreting Russia's relations with former Soviet Republics. For example, whether the American leaders like to admit it or not, Georgia has long been to Russia something akin to what Panama has been to the the US.
I blogged the Georgia-Russia crisis extensively. If you are interested in looking up what I wrote, you might start with this page.