Russia-Georgia Conflict

Posted by Katherine | August 14, 2008 – 10:53 am
Street in Tbilisi at night
Tbilisi, Georgia, at night [pazavi / Flickr]

In the last week, long-festering animosity between Georgia and Russia turned into bombing and heavy fighting. Some say the US is peripherally implicated in the escalation due to the mixed messages it has been giving President Saakashvili. It’s clear, in any case, that the US has very close ties to Georgia, and both Obama and McCain have issued several statements about the conflict — Obama’s basically focussed on diplomacy and McCain’s strongly critical of Russia (and, possibly, semi-plagiarized from Wikipedia). The blogosphere has been analyzing those pronouncements to determine who’s most fit to be commander in chief.

Gregory Djerejian works in financial services in New York. He’s travelled the world, is a “keen follower of international politics,” and has “some expertise” in Caucasus issues. Gregory feels that in the “3 AM sweepstakes, Obama has taken it by a mile,” though he was disappointed by Barack’s predictably “tougher” follow-up to his initial statement. (Hat tip to Henry Shepherd for submitting the post.) He’s entirely critical of McCain’s approach and, among many other things, wonders why McCain notes that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion”:

[W]hat does it matter in this context that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion”? If it had been the first to adopt Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, would the situation be different?

After dissecting the problems he sees with the US’s involvement and McCain’s statement — which, he says, points to more Bush-like imperialism — he moves on to how the US might help:

[W]e have a President who has announced a pre-emptive doctrine which allows us to, willy-nilly, instigate regime change when and where we deem appropriate. Who are we to lecture Putin now? What standing do we have to do so? And what parochial and self-satisfied myopia has us indignantly thinking we are some unimpeachable arbitrer of right and wrong in the international system after the disastrous missteps of the past eight sordid years?

If we mean to help the Georgians escape an even worse fate, we must summon up the intelligence and humility to have a dialogue with Putin, Medvedev, Sergie Lavrov, Vitaly Churkin and the rest of them based on straight talk […] to wit: we screwed up overly propping this guy up and he got too big for his britches, we understand, but for the sake of going forward strategic cooperation (and don’t mention Iran here, at least not as the first example)–as well as stopping further civilian loss of life–agree to work with us in good faith towards a status quo ante as much as possible, don’t enter Tbilisi, and throw show-boats Sarkozy/Kouchner a bone with some possible talk of a going forward EU peacekeeping role (if non-binding, for the time being). […] So let’s get real. Before it’s too late, and more facts are created on the ground, mostly on the backs of innocent civilians throughout Georgia’s various regions.

Scott Mendelson from California also comes down on Obama’s side but has some words of advice:

Obama’s performance in this moment has not been his finest hour, on that we can all agree. He seemed ill-at-ease, unsure of himself, and not terribly confident in the strategy he was laying out (he also should have warn a suit for the occasion). Still, just because he gave a lousy speech doesn’t mean the contents of that speech were incorrect. He understands that we can’t really threaten Russia with force, since all of our army is in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows that we can’t really condemn Russia for invading a sovereign nation and attempting regime change, because the US has been engaged in that for years and it was likely the invasion of Iraq that convinced Putin that he could get away with his present actions. […]

What Barrack Obama also should have said is that this was a perfect example of blow back from the foreign policy of the Bush administration, emboldening both sides of an armed conflict and then being more or less helpless to resolve that conflict. In the same way that the invasion of Iraq, a country with no nukes, has restarted an arms race in the Middle East, our immoral and illegal acts of aggression (spying, invasions, torture, rendition, etc) has shown to the world that this kind of behavior will more or less be tolerated on the world stage. And, John McCain’s all-but declaration of war against Russia, despite our current tactical disadvantage, is a sign that John McCain will really give us more of the same.

William Greeley, an Objectivist who calls himself Myrhaf after a character in a historical novel he’s working on, thinks McCain’s approach is the right one:

No one has been a harsher critic than I of John McCain, but I have to give him credit where due. He was right about Putin and Russia long before most people were. […]

McCain’s response to the Georgian crisis has been strikingly superior to Obama’s. (HT: TIA Daily) Of course, talk is cheap and Republicans are often softer than their rhetoric, but still… it is revealing that Obama gives a standard, bland response then goes on vacation. Like all liberal-leftists, he lacks interest in standing up for an American ally against a hegemonic tyranny. It’s not important to Obama.

The Democrats in their private moments of honesty must be worried that history has not “ended,” for national security issues always favor Republicans. People like Hugh Hewitt know this and try to scare the base every day about liberals handling national security. The difficult task is sorting through the spin to find the truth.

Donald Sensing, a Methodist pastor and former Army officer from Clarksville, Tennessee, (previously featured here) also prefers McCain on Georgia/Russia but says, “he gives me only a little more confidence on this issue than his opponent.” Donald elaborates, saying that McCain’s tough rhetoric is rather empty:

McCain comprehensively described the nature of the Russian bear and the stakes of the conflict. All very fine and well said. And he refused to get sucked into partisan rebuttals of the cheap shots that the Obama campaign has already made at his earlier comments.

But, like retired general and former NATO commander Wesley Clark, interviewed earlier on talk radio, McCain made a fundamental error: thinking that NATO has any teeth. Clark said that NATO should immediately bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO membership. I don’t recall McCain saying exactly that, but he came close to it at minimum.

However, NATO doesn’t do anything “immediately,” especially decisions dripping with irreversible political implications. So even if the European NATO nations were inclined to take the suggestion (which they aren’t), it would not happen quickly. […]

Asked directly whether he would include the use of force to frustrate Russia’s plans, McCain replied directly, too: “No.” (Clark: “No one is talking about dropping a brigade of the 82d Airborne into Georgia.”) That’s the right answer, but it also shows why other Allied measures will be ineffectual. At bottom, when resisting naked aggression like this, non-military measures don’t work because the other side, Russia, has already made the decision that attaining a military decision is more important than good relations or bearing economic sanctions. Absent a credible threat of meeting their force with our force, then all other responses are empty.

McCain must know this, but he gamely, fluently foundered about sounding tough when there is no way to disguise the fact that our boxing gloves are filled with marshmallows.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that less than 20% of voters are following the conflict closely. So it doesn’t seem clear yet how much the McCain-Obama posturing will actually affect their popularity.

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