You can be forgiven if you haven’t been following closely the fighting between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. But there are two lessons that we all absolutely must take away from these events:
1/ Under no circumstances should John McCain become president of the United States and you should do everything you can between now and November 4 to make sure that is the case.
2/ We need to break our economic addiction to oil ASAP, with an effort on the scale of World War II, if necessary.
This was one of those “3 a.m. moments” that this election was supposedly all about (before McCain put oil drilling and Paris Hilton front and center). And McCain failed it. Disastrously. Worse than our worst fears. It is now apparent that McCain would be even more impulsively belligerent than Bush and even more arrogant and unwise in heeding the war-mongering urgings of his neocons advisors.
First some preliminary observations. Russia is run by some really nasty people. Russia is a great nation with a long history of power politics and fighting dirty and we shouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon. Notwithstanding that George W. Bush “looked the man in the eye” got “a sense of his soul” and “found him to be very .. trustworthy,” Putin is an ex-KGB thug and continues to act accordingly. But, unlike George Bush in the US, he is HUGELY popular within Russia. That is because he brought post-Soviet Russia back up from humiliation and economic ruin by wrestling the country back from the oligarchs, making them pay taxes and re-nationalizing the county’s vast oil wealth. He stabilized Russia’s tax revenue and slowly refilled the country’s empty treasury. He also began to push back against Western (i.e., US) humiliation and restore central control over the provinces seeking autonomy. Russians, like Americans, are nationalistic and these were and are all popular moves. Under Putin (and record high oil prices), Russia is enjoying an economic boom.
It’s worth recalling that in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy contracted by 60 percent (by contrast, our current economic crisis has so far entailed essentially flat economic growth for a few quarters). By 1993 almost half of Russia’s population was living in poverty, defined as living on $25/month or less. Life expectancy fell dramatically and Russia’s population dropped by about three-quarters of a million people. Meanwhile, great fortunes were made overnight, as party bosses and others with connections cashed in their Soviet-era power and privileges, taking advantage of their insider positions to win exclusive government contracts and licenses and to acquire financial credits and supplies at artificially low, state-subsidized prices in order to acquire former State assets at bargain prices and then transact business at high market prices. Billionaires sprung up like wildflowers after a spring rain even while the Russian economy as a whole was practically destitute. (Like an extreme version of Republican crony capitalism.) After Russia’s financial collapse in 1998, tax revenue wasn’t sufficient even to pay the interest on its loans from the West, let alone provide public services. It was in this context that Putin was elected president by an overwhelming margin. Given his success overseeing Russia’s subsequent economic and political re-emergence, it is hardly surprising that he is popular.
It’s also worth recalling that George Bush did just about everything he could to humiliate Russia, particularly the expansion of NATO into the Baltics and plans to deploy a (worthless) missile defense system in the Poland (in the process ditching the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty), both moves adamantly opposed by Russia. The Iraq war also could be seen as a provocation, taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the break-up of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent decline in power to (unsuccessfully) project US military power further into the heart of the world’s major oil producing region (including an air base in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan).
Bush continued to push into the former Soviet Union, egging on Georgia’s young Western-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to apply for NATO membership and send 2000 troops to Iraq. The US, in return, provided Georgia with tactical training and sophisticated weapons from our military. NATO’s European members rejected Bush’s urgings to fast-track Georgia’s application for membership, understanding the geo-strategic implications of expanding NATO’s boundaries right up to Russia’s borders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Finally, we should note that – unfortunately – in the year 2008, OIL = POWER and Russia has a lot of it Russia exports about 7 million barrels of oil a day, second only to Saudi Arabia. The US imports about 13 million barrels of oil a day, more than any other country in the world. The problem isn’t production – we produce almost as much oil as Russia. It is consumption – we consume a quarter of the world’s oil production.` And with less than 2% of the world’s proven reserves, there isn’t much we can do about that except use a lot less oil. But that is a bigger subject.
Georgia and South Ossetia
So what the heck is going on in Georgia and South Ossetia?
The (UK) Times has some useful background. As the name “South” Ossetia suggests, there is also a “North” Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation. The majority of the Ossetes living south of the main Caucasus range in Georgia wish to unite with their fellow Ossetes living to the north. Georgians, regarding South Ossetia as both a legal and historic part of their national territory, refuse to accept this.
As the Times explains:
As the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989, and Georgian nationalist moves for independence gathered pace, so too did Ossete nationalism and demands for separation from Georgia.
The Ossete national movement was encouraged by the Soviet Government in an effort to exert pressure against Georgian independence.
In November 1989 the Soviet assembly of the South Ossetian autonomous region passed a motion calling for union with North Ossetia. …
A year later, after the election in Georgia of a pro-independence government led by the extreme nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the same assembly declared South Ossetia a Soviet republic separate from Georgia. The Gamsakhurdia Government then sent thousands of Georgian armed police and nationalist militia into the region. These were fought to a standstill by local Ossete militia backed by Soviet Interior Ministry troops.
… Russian forces have remained as the de facto defenders of the South Ossetian separatist region. …
… Russia’s policy is driven by a mixture of emotion and calculation. The Russian security establishment likes the Ossetes, who have been Russian allies for more than 250 years. They loathe the Georgians for their anti-Russian nationalism and alliance
with the US. …
What remains is an absolute determination not to be defeated by Georgia and not to suffer the humiliation of having to abandon Russia’s South Ossete client state, with everything that this would mean for Russian prestige in other areas. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin made it clear again and again that if Georgia attacked South Ossetia, Russia would fight. Georgian advocates in the West claimed that Moscow was only bluffing. It wasn’t.
And then there is – surprise – the subject of oil again. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which opened in 2005 and traverses Georgia was intended expressly as a way to by-pass Russia to export oil from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to the West (and to Israel, in particular). The Great Game geopolitics of oil at work again. As long as demand for oil continues to skyrocket globally, the resources of the Caucuses are going to be a flashpoint. (When are we going to free ourselves of this poison??!?)
Bush and Cheney, being waste products of the oil industry, have been encouraging Georgian independence, and by training Georgia’s armed forces, supplying sophisticated military equipment and dangling the prospect of Georgia’s membership in NATO, wittingly or unwittingly destabilized the region. The “headstrong and reckless” Saakashvili came to believe that he could seize South Ossetia with the backing of the US. The ruthless and uncompromising Putin, on the other hand, wasn’t about to cede Georgia to the US sphere of influence and risk further destabilizing other regions such as the Ukraine (which is also seeking NATO membership).
Neither side is blameless here. Saakashvili – leading a country of less than five million people – clearly miscalculated when he sought to assert military control over South Ossetia, shelling the capitol with rockets and sending in the Georgian army. Putin took advantage of that miscalculation to send a message to Georgia, other independence-minded former Soviet republics, and to the world, that Russia is back and isn’t going to be pushed around any longer.
Don’t get me wrong. Georgian democracy is a great thing. Saakashvili, a 40-year old former New York lawyer, is a bright, idealistic guy. But how far do we want to encourage him to push Georgian independence? What are we prepared to do if it provokes a backlash? And what of our broader relationship with Russia? Are we better working with Russia on common problems (like global warming and Iran) or heading down the path to another Cold War? Those are questions you would hope our leaders would be considering.
As Fred Kaplan notes,
Did [the Bush administration] really think Putin would sit by and see another border state (and former province of the Russian empire) slip away to the West? If they thought that Putin might not, what did they plan to do about it, and how firmly did they warn Saakashvili not to get too brash or provoke an outburst?
It's heartbreaking, but even more infuriating, to read so many Georgians quoted in the New York Times—officials, soldiers, and citizens—wondering when the United States is coming to their rescue. It's infuriating because it's clear that Bush did everything to encourage them to believe that he would. …
[Bush enticed] Saakashvili with weapons, training, and talk of entry into NATO.
Of course the Georgians believed that if they got into a firefight with Russia,
the Americans would bail them out.
… If the Europeans had let Bush have his way [by admitting Georgia into NATO], we would now be obligated by treaty to send troops in Georgia's defense. That is to say, we would now be in a shooting war with the Russians. Those who might oppose entering such a war would be accused of "weakening our credibility" and "destroying the unity of the Western alliance."
… Is Georgia's continued control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia really worth war with Russia? Is its continued independence from Moscow's domination, if it comes to that, worth our going to war?
As you might expect, the neocons are already comparing this to Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Of course, they compare every nasty leader to Hitler and every act of aggression to the onset of World War III. Saddam was “Hitler” until we overthrew him. Then Iran’s Ahmadinejad became “Hitler.” Unfortunately, by overthrowing Iraq’s “Hitler”, we empowered Iran’s “Hitler” and then sought the help of Russia’s “Hitler” to contain Iran’s “Hitler. But to contain Russia’s “Hitler” we encouraged Georgia to assert itself which threw a wrench in things by attacking the friends of Russia’s “Hitler” and … oh, it’s all so confusing. Just tell me who is “good” and who is “evil” so we can threatened the evil people with military force unless they bow to our will. But, even spending more on the military than the rest of the world combined, as we do, there are limits to how many “Hitlers” we can take on at one time. At some point, maybe we have to seek to avoid wars – and de-escalate conflicts – rather than threatening more.
The reliably moronic and pro-war William Kristol is typical. In yesterday’s New York Times column (why does he have a New York Times column?) he concludes by saying,
The United States, of course, is not without resources and allies to deal with these problems and threats. But at times we seem oddly timid and uncertain.
When the “civilized world” expostulated with Russia about Georgia in 1924, the Soviet regime was still weak. In Germany, Hitler was in jail. Only 16 years later, Britain stood virtually alone against a Nazi-Soviet axis. Is it not true today, as it was in the 1920s and ’30s, that delay and irresolution on the part of the democracies simply invite future threats and graver dangers?
And what exactly is it that we “delay” through our “irresolution”? And what are we too “timid” and “uncertain” to do? Go to war with Russia? And what are those “resources” that we are not without? The ones that are overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan?
At least the Wall Street Journal editorial page is capable of coming up with a new metaphor. Instead of “Hilter,” Putin is “Vladimir Bonaparte” with “Napoleonic ambitions” (“The West needs to draw a line at Georgia. No matter who fired the first shot last week …”). So what happens if that “line” is crossed? Looks to me like Putin is the one drawing a line.
Bush, McCain and Obama
You can always count on Bush to say something stupid, and his reaction to this crisis didn’t break with form:
"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state.... Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.... We have no doubts about it. This is a deliberate attempt to destroy an entire country and change the regime."
Invading a sovereign state to destroy a country and change the regime isn't acceptable in the 21st century. Glad Bush let us know that
Cheney told Georgia's president that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” Asked to explain Cheney's phrase "must not go unanswered," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "It means it must not stand." White House officials refused to indicate what recourse the United States might have if the attacks continue. As Kaplan notes,
We should all be interested to know what answer he is preparing or whether he was just dangling the Georgians on another few inches of string. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Security Council, "This is completely unacceptable and crosses a line." Talk like that demands action. What's the plan?
Obama condemned the violence and called on both sides to “show restraint” – a perfectly reasonable approach to take under the circumstances:
"I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict. Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war. Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected. All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia, and the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community should fully support a peaceful resolution to this crisis."
But this caused the McCain campaign to go ballistic (as their candidate is wont to do), complete with their own historical references:
In fact, the initial response from the Obama campaign was characterized by precisely the kind of rhetoric that the leaders of these nations warn against--a meaningless statement that equates the victim with the victimizer by calling on both sides to show restraint. Asking the Georgians to show restraint is like asking the Hungarians to show restraint as Russian tanks rolled into the country in 1956, or for restraint from the students in Prague in 1968.
The reaction of the Obama campaign to this crisis, so at odds with our democratic allies and yet so bizarrely in sync with Moscow, doesn't merely raise questions about Senator Obama's judgment--it answers them.
As it turns out, the Bush administration was using almost exactly the same words as Obama:
"We urge restraint on all sides — that violence would be curtailed and that direct dialogue could ensue in order to help resolve their differences," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
Even Dick Cheney eventually came around to praising “restraint”:
"The vice president praised President Saakashvili for his government's restraint, offers of cease-fire, and disengagement of Georgian forces from the zone of conflict in the South Ossetian region of the country," the statement said.
That left only McCain and the neocon nuts advising his campaign arguing against “restraint” – I guess Cheney just isn’t belligerent enough for them.
You will recall that even before this current crisis, McCain had called for Russia to be expelled from the G-8 (and China denied membership – ‘cause you just can’t have too many enemies). He also called for the creation of a “League of Democracies” to serve as our alliance in a new Cold War. So it is not surprising that McCain would like us to have a treaty obligation to come to the defense of Georgia:
[McCain] said the NATO should reconsider its previous decision and set Georgia – which he called “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion’’ — on the path to becoming a member. “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,’’ he said.
What does Georgia being one of the first nations to adopt Christianity as an “official religion” have to do with anything? Was he just seeking to reassure the Muslim world that a President McCain would pursue religious wars? Like Bush’s infamous “crusade”?
The father of our successful, bipartisan post World War II policy of “containment,” George Kennan, said in a 1997 op-ed in the New York Times that,
Expanding NATO to Eastern Europe is one thing. But expanding it to republics of the former Soviet Union is another. These are treaty commitments requiring that we come to the military defense of other members. Is John McCain prepared to go to war with Russia to help Georgia bring South Ossetia under its control?
"[E]xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking."
The problem with making blustering threats is that you either have to back them up or you have to back down. Backing them up means war. Backing down means losing your credibility (which tends to make war more likely in the future). Even if Georgia is granted NATO membership, I don’t think anyone believes the US would go to war under circumstances like those this week. So what, really, is the point? Are we prepared to call Putin’s bluff? Are we sure he won’t call ours? And if a guy like Saalkashvili thinks we have his back, is he more likely to miscalculate, as he did this week?
For now, it appears Russia has inflicted the lesson it sought to deliver and is pulling back. After launching its military campaign in South Ossetia, Georgia had to withdraw within 48 hours. As a practical matter, Russia is in control of events in Georgia. The border will be where Russia decides to leave it. We should engage with Russia to come up with a security framework for Georgia that prevents any miscalculations in the future. But thanks to the serial strategic misadventures that comprise the Bush-Cheney foreign policy, we have no military credibility in this conflict and we would have no national interest in escalating this crisis even if we did.
What have we learned about John McCain this week? And does he intend to continuing making a new Cold War with Russia (and perhaps China) a theme of his campaign? Already, the president of Georgia is quoting John McCain to a large crowd in Tbilisi, saying among other things that Poland’s continued freedom depends on the stance they are taking now in Georgia.
McCain even called Saalkashvili earlier in the day. Gee, if Barack Obama was egging on one side in a geo-politically dangerous shooting war, do you think he might be accused of being “presumptuous?” Is John McCain running America’s foreign policy?
Fred Kaplan’s piece is worth reading. His conclusion may be the most important lesson of this conflict:
In the long term, the best way to take Russia down a notch (along with Iran, Venezuela, and other hostile powers overflowing with oil money) is to pursue policies and fund technologies that slash the demand for oil. The Georgia crisis should make clear, if it isn't already, that this is a matter of hard-headed national security.
And, heaven help us, don’t let John McCain get anywhere near the White House.