I'm disturbed - deeply disturbed - at the attitudes taken in some portions of the lefty blogosphere regarding the Russia-Georgia war. Too many seem too eager to find ways to point fingers at Georgia and exonerate or at least downplay Russia's actions. I have seen, for example, references - complete with ominous italics - to "the US-trained Georgian forces." (I'm still not sure exactly what that's supposed to signify, but it appears to be very important to those who raise it.)
Some, such as Richard Estes at American Leftist, actually celebrated the Russian invasion. Richard called it "a decisive victory" and "a huge defeat for the US, NATO and Israel." Indeed, it was "a positive development for the global left" because "a US military outpost of the 'war on terror' has been overrun." Similarly, a commenter at Hullabaloo said the attack "should be lauded as a necessary setback for fascist Western imperialism."
But my deeper concern is not with knee-jerk ideologues but with what for lack of a better term I will resurrect the old word "trimmers." That originally referred to those who would philosophically trim their sails at the first sign of politically rough weather, who were, to extend the imagery, brave enough in calm seas but unwilling to face the storm. Here, though, I'm looking to an ethical, even a moral, trimming, an unwillingness to go where the facts lead for fear, I strongly suspect, of giving a sort of political aid and comfort to the neocons.
We saw that same attitude during Vietnam, where significant parts of the antiwar movement were hesitant to, avoided, even outright refused to make any criticisms of the North Vietnamese or the PRG née NLF for fear of giving political succor to the Johnson-Nixon administrations. In the years since, we have still proven unable to realize that it is not necessary to choose sides in order to offer moral criticism - that, in the immediate case, criticizing Russia does not mean endorsing Georgia's actions and even less does it mean endorsing US policy in the Caucasus.
Am I making sense here? I fear that I'm not, so maybe a couple of examples will better serve to make things clearer.
Glenn Greenwald, for who I usually have enormous respect, described as a "deceitful premise" the idea
that Russia's "aggression" against Georgia was "unprovoked" ...Just to be clear, the quotation marks around the words "aggression" and "unprovoked," a method normally employed to cast doubt on the truthfulness or accuracy of the words so quoted, were in the original. To be even clearer, Greenwald is saying that the Russians did not commit aggression and were provoked.
Virtually the entire rest of the world - at least the rest of the world that is affected in some way by Russia and Georgia - has access to the truth[, he said].
Curiously, the article from Der Spiegel (Germany) to which he links in order to show how "the world ... has access to the truth," a truth which we have been denied, contains this paragraph:
But now, five weeks after the end of the war in the Caucasus, the winds have shifted in America. Even Washington is beginning to suspect that [Georgian President Mikhail] Saakashvili, a friend and ally, could in fact be a gambler - someone who triggered the bloody five-day war and then told the West bold-faced lies. "The concerns about Russia have remained," says Paul Sanders, an expert on Russia and the director of the conservative Nixon Center in Washington. His words reflect the continuing Western assessment that Russia's military act of revenge against the tiny Caucasus nation Georgia was disproportionate, that Moscow violated international law by recognizing the separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and, finally, that it used Georgia as a vehicle to showcase its imperial renaissance.The "truth" to which Greenwald evidently refers is that, according to the article, Western nations have begun to doubt if Georgia was simply, as it claimed, an innocent victim in the conflict. And yes, there is good reason to doubt that: The term "gambler" to describe Saakashvili has appeared in several accounts; the growing conviction is that he gambled that he could reassert control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia in a lightning move, thus presenting Russia (and the rest of the world) with a fait accompli that would serve to head off any reaction. That was a gamble, quite obviously, that he lost badly.
However, the point is that Greenwald's own source says that the judgment of Russia - that it engaged in "disproportionate" "revenge," violated international law, and "used" Georgia to demonstrate its own "imperial renaissance" - has persisted. Bluntly, to refer to such behavior not as aggression but as "aggression" and to imply everyone else also sees it that way is worse than absurd, it is itself a "deceitful premise."
Meanwhile, Tristero at Hullabaloo approvingly cites an article by Robert English intended to provide "background" to the conflict.
As usual, [Tristero says,] the reasons are far more complicated than the US public is permitted, by their mainstream media and leaders, to consider....I'm not going to critique English's article; follow the links if you want to see it. Suffice it to say it does provide some additional background but suffers from the common defect of trying to "explain" the roots of a conflict by deciding when the clock of history is supposed to start - so that whatever has happened after that point matters but whatever happened before it doesn't.
My concern here is that Tristero echoes Greenwald's underlying point, which is to say, in essence, "well, ya know, it's really kinda complicated, we really don't know everything, y'see..." followed by a lot of words that add up to mumbles amid shuffling feet.
But as I said in a comment at Hullabaloo,
[a]ppealing to "complexity" is too often a way to avoid the difficulty of having to make judgments and frankly the story that Robert English tells is not that complex; rather it is one of one sort of oppression leading to another sort, of a victimizer becoming the victimized. That is neither a new, nor all that unusual an, experience over the course of history.Again to be clear, I'm not accusing Greenwald or Tristero of being "pro-Russia" or any other such bullshit. I'm accusing them of going out of their way to dodge making a criticism of Russia, of refusing to condemn the brutality, of striking a pose of studied neutrality while reserving their real criticisms for Georgia supposedly to provide a sort of "balance" (of exactly the artificial sort that is condemned when the mass media does it) but actually, I say, to avoid giving political ammunition to the Bushes, McCains, Palins, and Krauthammers.
So the appeal to complexity appears unnecessary, and the "however"s and "but"s sprinkled through - such as the supposed necessity to "discern the difference" between "an offensive, 'neo-imperial' strategy and a defensive, 'anti-NATO' tactic" (as if that mattered to the dead) or the claim that Russia was "lashing out at the West" (as if the secondary target was a mitigating factor) or the assertion that "the attack was ... a preventive strike against two NATO bases-in-the-making" (even as we condemn the idea of such "preventive strikes" when done by the US) - do more to obscure than to reveal.
And it is that which makes them moral trimmers.
But that still leaves one other issue: if the attack on Georgia was "unprovoked" or not. And here I have to say that in fairness it could depend on your understanding of what constitutes a provocation. Or rather could have if Russia had acted differently.
Certainly Russia had made clear its interest in the region. And it needs to be remembered that the region in question is called South Ossetia because there is a North Ossetia which is part of Russia. Those of the south and north feel themselves to be one people and the Ossetians are ethnically and culturally different from Georgians. South Ossetia became part of Georgia almost by coincidence: When the Soviet Union broke up, the boundaries were set according to those of the old Soviet Socialist Republics - and the Georgian SSR included South Ossetia. Those of South Ossetia have wanted independence from Georgia (and possible unification with North Ossetia) for some time.
So when the Georgian military launched an attack seeking to retake control of South Ossetia, an attack which produced some tens of thousands of refugees, apparently included attacking a base for a Russian peacekeeping force in the region, and during which, it now emerges, it may well have committed war crimes involving deliberate targeting and indiscriminate killing of civilians, Russia might well have felt "provoked." (Sidebar: Georgia, of course, denies committing war crimes but in this case I trust the accusers far more than the accused.)
But while some would stop there, there is more, because the clock of history did not start in August: A report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe noted
the announcement made by the Russian authorities in April 2008 that they would establish formal relations with the separatist de facto authorities in Tskhinvali[, i.e., South Ossetia,] and Sukhumi[, i.e., Abkhazia,]and that Russia had been building up its military forces in the region. What's more, the "Russian citizens" in South Ossetia to which some trimmers have referred were actually the result of Russia unilaterally bestowing such citizenship, which could then "be used by Russia to legitimise the use of force to protect its citizens."
In the face of that, it would be easy to conclude that it was Georgia, not Russia, that was "provoked."
Another thing needs to be remembered here: The attack on South Ossetia by the Georgian army was not an invasion. As brutal, oppressive, and stupid as it was, it was not an invasion. South Ossetia was by universal agreement among nations (including, at that time, even Russia) part of Georgia and a nation cannot "invade" its own territory. The Russian attack, on the other hand, was an invasion.
Even so, if the Russian attack had been limited to protecting and evacuating its peacekeeping force, it wouldn't have caused a stir. If it actually had been for, and limited to, the original (and false) claimed purpose of protecting Russians in South Ossetia, it might have passed muster. And if it had been a "humanitarian intervention" to prevent a slaughter, those who advocate such uses of military force could have approved.
But it was none of those. The invasion's intended beneficiary was neither South Ossetia nor the Russians there and by the latter I mean both the Russian troops and the Russian "citizens." It was Russia. Russia's advantage, Russia's gain, Russia's "imperial renaissance." Its original claims of 2,000 killed in the initial Georgian assault proved to be wildly inflated and the reported total has dwindled to no more than one-fifth that number and perhaps less than one-tenth. (Which in context is still, I hasten to note, a considerable number.) Its charges of "genocide" were based on fantasy if even that. Its invasion went far beyond South Ossetia, deep into Georgia proper, occupying cities, ports, and military bases, killing over 300 and driving over 125,000 from their homes in the process. And once Russia had control of South Ossetia, it was required under the Geneva Conventions - the same conventions to which many of us (including, frequently, Glenn Greenwald) refer in criticizing US actions in Iraq and at Gitmo - to take steps to prevent revenge ethnic cleansing against Georgians in the area. It utterly failed to do so: The same BBC article that described the Georgian war crimes also referred to
the systematic destruction of former Georgian villages inside South Ossetia.The Russian human rights groups Demos says that on a visit to the area its representatives saw "pillaging" by Ossetians of the homes of Georgians who had fled the fighting.
Some homes appear to have been not just burned by Ossetians, but also bulldozed by the territory's Russian-backed authorities.
And now Russia is making what the European Union monitoring mission in Georgia says are "inflated" claims of Georgian ceasefire violations, violations it will not allow the EU monitors into South Ossetia to investigate and verify.
All wrapped up in a neat package by Russia's formal recognition of the independence not only of South Ossetia but Abkhazia as well.
Let's get to the bottom line here. What the Georgian government did in South Ossetia was, in the words of one British diplomat, "reckless." It was oppressive. It was brutal. It killed perhaps hundreds, drove thousands from their homes, and quite possibly involved war crimes. What the Russians did in Georgia was every bit as oppressive if not more so, every bit as brutal if not more so, every bit as cruel if not more so, and also illegal, a violation of international law. And any analysis that looks for ways to downplay Russia's behavior to avoid making any judgment about it - and even acts as if the Ossetians themselves played no part in events - is leaning more on ideology than information every bit as much as anyone who tried to make this into a hackneyed "David and Goliath" story.
The Georgian assault on South Ossetia was wrong. Morally and ethically wrong. The Russian invasion of Georgia was wrong. Morally, ethically, and legally wrong. I believe it is incumbent on us to, to the extent we address the matter, condemn both but in doing so to be prepared to label one side's criminality - Russia's - the greater. And if that gives comfort to the neocons, so be it or what happened to our fabled devotion to the truth?
Despite the moaning rising from too many places, I just can't see that as all that complex.
Footnote: As much as I hate the idea of citing something from the libertarian magazine Reason ("Free minds and free markets"), still, as the saying goes, "If it's true, what does it matter who said it?" In the mag's blog for Monday, Contributing Editor Cathy Young had a piece in response to Glenn Greenwald. You can judge the piece for yourself if you want, I just took away this one quote:
If the Bush administration gave the status of expatriate U.S. citizens to thousands of people in a separatist Iranian province and then used their "protection" as a pretext to invade Iran, would Greenwald see moral ambiguities in this situation? Somehow, I doubt it.Oh, no, I'm sure he'd be going "well, ya know, it's really kinda complicated...."
Another Footnote: Talks on the situation in Georgia are set to resume in Geneva on November 18. Russia wants representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to attend as well. Georgia initially refused to agree to that, then said through a deputy foreign minister that
Georgia would be willing to participate in informal talks with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But he said "legitimate" authorities from the two regions would have to be at the table as well, meaning the officials recognized by Georgia.Russia's response?
"If Georgia really refuses to participate in the Geneva discussions while South Ossetian and Abkhazian representatives attend, this is sad," [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov said. "It is an outright challenge to all those concerned about regional security."An "outright challenge?" In the language of diplomacy, that constitutes a threat. Russia, poor, misunderstood Russia, which committed no "aggression" but was "provoked," is threatening Georgia with unspecified consequences if it doesn't attend a conference that, structured as Russia proposes, would put Georgia in the position of giving at least de facto recognition to the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
A Third Footnote: Just in case you thought I think US interests have nothing to do with this:
U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday signed documents to demonstrate American support for NATO membership for Albania and Croatia. ...France and Germany both oppose the move to have Georgia and Ukraine join.
Bush also renewed U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine to join the NATO alliance. "Today I reiterate America's commitment to the NATO aspirations of Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Montenegro," he said.
The Bush administration has been supporting Georgia and Ukraine's attempts to join the NATO alliance. "We see no reason that they shouldn't get MAP (membership action plan) status," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said earlier in the day.