September 12 2008
Aghast at the atrocities by US forces invading the Philippines, and the rhetorical flights about liberation and noble intent that routinely accompany crimes of state, Mark Twain threw up his hands at his inability to wield his formidable weapon of satire.
The immediate object of his frustration was the renowned Gen. Frederick Funston. “No satire of Funston could reach perfection,” Twain lamented, “because Funston occupies that summit himself ... (he is) satire incarnated.” Twain’s conceit often comes to mind, again in recent weeks during the Russia-Georgia-Ossetia war. George Bush, Condoleezza Rice and other dignitaries solemnly invoked the sanctity of United Nations, warning that Russia could be excluded from international institutions “by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with” UN principles.
The sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations must be rigorously honoured, they intoned — “all nations” apart from those that the United States chooses to attack: Iraq, Serbia, perhaps Iran, and a long, familiar list of others.
The junior partner joined in as well. British foreign secretary David Miliband accused Russia of engaging in “19th century forms of diplomacy” by invading a sovereign state, something Britain would never contemplate today. Such an act “is simply not the way that international relations can be run in the 21st century,” Miliband added, echoing the decider-in-chief, who said that invasion of “a sovereign neighbouring state ... is unacceptable in the 21st century.”
The interplay of satire and real-life events becomes “even more enlightening,” Serge Halimi wrote in Le Monde diplomatique, “when, to defend his country’s borders, the charming pro-American (Mikheil) Saakashvili repatriates some of the 2,000 soldiers he had sent to invade Iraq,” one of the largest contingents apart from the two warrior states.Prominent analysts joined the chorus. Fareed Zakaria applauded Bush’s observation that Russia’s behavior is unacceptable today, unlike the 19th century, “when the Russian intervention would have been standard operating procedure for a great power.” We therefore must devise a strategy for bringing Russia “in line with the civilized world,” where intervention is unthinkable.The seven charter members of the Group of Eight industrialised countries issued a statement “condemning the action of our fellow G8 member,” Russia, which has yet to comprehend the Anglo-American commitment to non-intervention. The European Union held a rare emergency meeting to condemn Russia’s crime, its first meeting since the invasion of Iraq, which elicited no condemnation.
Russia called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, but no consensus was reached because, according to Council diplomats, the United States, Britain and some others rejected a phrase that called on both sides “to renounce the use of force.”
The reactions recall Orwell’s observations on the “indifference to reality” of the nationalist, who “not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but ... has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”The basic history is not seriously in dispute. South Ossetia and Abkhazia (with its ports on the Black Sea) were assigned by Stalin to his native Georgia. (Now Western leaders sternly admonish that Stalin’s directives must be respected.)The provinces enjoyed relative autonomy until the collapse of the USSR. In 1990, Georgia’s ultranationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia abolished autonomous regions and invaded South Ossetia. The bitter war that followed left 1,000 dead and tens of thousands of refugees.A small Russian force supervised a long, uneasy truce, broken on Aug. 7 when Georgian president Saakashvili’s ordered his forces to invade. According to “an extensive set of witnesses,” The New York Times reports, Georgia’s military at once “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 predictable Russian response drove Georgian forces out of South Ossetia, and Russia went on to conquer parts of Georgia, then partially withdrawing to the vicinity of South Ossetia. There were many casualties and atrocities. As is normal, the innocent suffered severely.
In the background of the Caucasus tragedy lie two crucial issues. One is control over natural gas and oil pipelines from Azerbaijan to the West. Georgia was chosen by Bill Clinton to bypass Russia and Iran, also heavily militarized for the purpose. Hence Georgia is “a very major and strategic asset to us,” Zbigniew Brzezinski observes.
It is noteworthy that analysts are becoming less reticent in explaining real US motives in the region as pretexts of dire threats and liberation fade and it becomes more difficult to deflect Iraqi demands for withdrawal of the occupying army. Thus the editors of The Washington Post admonished Barack Obama for regarding Afghanistan as “the central front” for the United States, reminding him that Iraq “lies at the geopolitical centre of the Middle East and contains some of the world’s largest oil reserves,” and Afghanistan’s “strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq.” A welcome, if belated, recognition of reality about the US invasion.
The second divisive issue in the Caucasus is expansion of Nato to the East. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Mikhail Gorbachev made a concession that was astonishing in the light of recent history and strategic realities: He agreed to allow a united Germany to join a hostile military alliance.Gorbachev agreed to the concession on the basis of “assurances that Nato would not extend its jurisdiction to the east, ‘not one inch’ in (Secretary of State) Jim Baker’s exact words,” according to Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to Russia in the crucial years 1987 to 1991.
Clinton quickly reneged on that commitment, also dismissing Gorbachev’s effort to end the Cold War with cooperation among partners. And Nato rejected a Russian proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free-zone from the Arctic to the Black Sea, which would have “interfered with plans to extend NATO,” strategic analyst and former Nato planner Michael McGwire observes.
Gorbachev’s hopes were abandoned in favour of US triumphalism. Clinton’s steps were sharply escalated by Bush’s aggressive posture and actions. Matlock writes that Russia might have tolerated incorporation of former Russian satellites into Nato if the United States “had not bombed Serbia and continued expanding. But, in the final analysis, ABM missiles in Poland, and the drive for Georgia and Ukraine in Nato crossed absolute red lines. The insistence on recognizing Kosovo independence was sort of the very last straw. Putin had learned that concessions to the US were not reciprocated, but used to promote US dominance in the world. Once he had the strength to resist, he did so,” in Georgia.
There is much talk about a “new cold war” instigated by brutal Russian behaviour in Georgia. One cannot fail to be alarmed by new US naval contingents in the Black Sea — the counterpart would hardly be tolerated in the Gulf of Mexico — and other signs of confrontation. Efforts to expand Nato to Ukraine, now contemplated, could become extremely hazardous. Vice President Cheney’s recent visits to Georgia and Ukraine are recklessly provocative.
Nonetheless, a new Cold War seems unlikely. To evaluate the prospect, we should begin by clarity about the old Cold War. Fevered rhetoric aside, in practice the Cold War was a tacit pact in which each of the contestants was largely free to resort to violence and subversion to control its own domains: for Russia, its Eastern neighbours; for the global superpower, most of the world. Human society need not endure — and might not survive — a resurrection of anything like that.A sensible alternative is the Gorbachev vision rejected by Clinton and undermined by Bush. Sane advice along these lines has recently been given by former Israeli Foreign Minister and historian Shlomo ben-Ami, writing in the Lebanese press:
“Russia must seek genuine strategic partnership with the US, and the latter must understand that, when excluded and despised, Russia can be a major global spoiler. Ignored and humiliated by the US since the Cold War ended, Russia needs integration into a new global order that respects its interests as a resurgent power, not an anti-Western strategy of confrontation.”
Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author, most recently, of Hegemony or Survival Americas Quest for Global Dominance.