Georgia on my mindAugust 17, 2008
written by Michael Walzer @ DISSENT MAGAZINE
The Russian invasion of Georgia, and the inability of Western countries to respond, is frightening and depressing—and it isn’t at all clear what comes next or what should come next. Here are six short contributions to the necessary public debate:
1) This is an unjust war. That may seem obvious here in the U.S., but the Russians have worked hard to justify their attack, using the humanitarian language that everyone now uses to defend military operations in other people’s countries. It is important to address their claims, especially because they have received some credence in Europe. It is also relatively easy to do that since reporters and human rights activists have been allowed into parts of Georgia now under Russian control. As a result, we know that the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali has not been destroyed by the Georgian army. “Fighting appears to have been concentrated in two neighborhoods, while buildings in the rest of the city stood intact,” reports the New York Times (August 13, 2008). “Entire residential neighborhoods appear unscathed.” Nor is the Russian claim that the Georgians killed or injured 2,000 civilians credible. Human Rights Watch, checking the local hospital, has come up with the figure of 44 dead and 273 wounded in clashes between Ossetian separatists and Georgian soldiers—and one doctor told reporters that the majority of the wounded were soldiers (New York Times, August 15, 2008). The Putin government apparently believes that anything less than the Big Lie won’t be persuasive, and this Big Lie may be effective in Russia, where the government dominates the media. It shouldn’t be credited in the rest of the world. This isn’t a humanitarian intervention, and it isn’t a peacekeeping operation.
2) The argument that Russian soldiers made to journalists—that what they are doing is exactly what the U.S. would have done if Russia had armed and trained the army of a “friendly” Central American country—isn’t a defense of the invasion. Imagine the Russians sending equipment and expert help to the Nicaraguan army in the 1980s. Might we have responded with something much bigger than the contra insurrection? Yes, and we might also have justified whatever our armed forces did by talking about human rights and peacekeeping. But we would have been wrong. The military operation would have been unjust, and many Americans would have said that. Imagining this hypothetical invasion, I also imagine the scale and intensity of the protests.
3) The movement of Georgian soldiers into South Ossetia was reckless, certainly, but it wasn’t the reason—it was only the excuse—for the Russian invasion. The reason lies in American policy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the years since 1989, which the Russians have interpreted, not implausibly, as aiming at and achieving a significant reduction in their power and prestige. I don’t think that the policy was necessarily wrong, or wrong at all, but it was, like President Saakashvili’s Ossetian adventure, reckless. We never reckoned on a Russian response or planned for it or consulted with our allies about what might have to be done. Russia’s strategic aggressiveness in Georgia obviously took the Bush administration by surprise. Just like the Iraqi insurgency. Just like the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Just like the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. Just like the fall of Musharraf in Pakistan.
4)What is happening in Georgia is a major defeat for America and for the EU as well. It demonstrates that these two great powers, publicly committed to the advance of democracy in Europe, are unable to defend the territorial integrity or physical security of democratic Georgia. But the invasion may not turn out to be a victory for Russia. The most heartening moment in the last week was the arrival in Tbilisi on Tuesday of the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, and Poland to stand in solidarity with Saakashvili. They are not ready to accept the reassertion of an old-fashioned Russian “sphere of influence.” And their public presence and resistance are more important than any American or European statements.
5)The European response has been particularly weak, and we have to worry that the weakness is due to European dependence on Russian oil—which would be greatly heightened if the pipeline across Georgia and Turkey were cut. I don’t think that the Russians invaded Georgia for the oil; I don’t think that America invaded Iraq for the oil. But oil is a factor in imperial politics, and the EU needs to think about a version of Russian domination that is commercial rather than political or military—an “empire” entirely appropriate to the twenty-first century. One response that the Russians would notice would be a large-scale campaign for conservation and a massive investment in alternative sources of energy.
6)We need a better foreign policy debate than this election campaign has yet produced, and the Georgian disaster would be a useful starting point.