This may be a redundant thing to say, but Cathy Young is wrong in her attack on Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald replies here and makes most of the necessary points, but I would add a couple observations. No one who followed the domestic political scene in August and afterwards could have missed that McCain took great satisfaction in laying the blame for the entire conflict at Moscow’s door. “We are all Georgians now,” he insisted, because he took it as a given that Georgia was entirely innocent and played the role of hapless victim. The Russian response to Georgian provocation, which even I said at the time was excessive, was entirely predictable ever since the recognition of Kosovo independence and the promise of NATO membership to Georgia earlier this year, which are the issues that have so far gone unmentioned in this latest argument*. No doubt Young’s abiding concern for international law and state sovereignty inspired her to make impassioned complaints about the illegal partition of Serbia, right? Oh, right, I forgot, these things only matter when they are being undermined by non-allied foreign governments. Of course, it is directly because of a lack of Western respect for international norms and the sovereignty of other states (some of which also just happen to be aligned with Russia) that Georgia has suffered Russian incursions. First occupying and then recognizing Kosovo provided the pretext and precedent for Moscow’s response to Georgian provocation. The Russians at least went through the legal formality of granting passports to the Ossetian and Abkhaz population; our government slices and dices other countries while using far more abstract and incredible justifications. It is impossible to separate the promise of NATO membership from what Saakashvili did. Even if Washington warned him against provocative action, the promise of NATO membership encouraged reckless action on the assumption that the West would come to Georgia’s aid if necessary, and the perceived threat of NATO expansion inevitably made Georgia the target of Russian ire.
Obama’s initial suggestion that both sides should show restraint and that both sides shared responsibility was ridiculed on the right and continues to be used in the election campaign that Obama was “wrong about Russia” because he did not immediately begin spouting Georgian government press releases. In McCain’s hard-line, pro-Georgian interpretation there was nothing dangerous or provocative about what the Georgian government had been doing before August or in what it did in early August, because he accepts Saakashvili’s irredentist program of restoring Georgian control over the separatist regions. In the debates he complained that people in Tskhinvali thought of Putin as their President in 2006, as if that political reality were somehow irrelevant to the final settlement of the separatist disputes! Unfortunately, Obama early on felt some compulsion to move closer and closer to McCain’s interpretation of what happened in August, and this was presumably so he would not appear “weak” on Russia and provide McCain with a line of attack. Obama’s shift from his relatively sensible immediate response to the standard party line reminds us that there is an obvious party line to which most politicians feel obliged to subscribe, and according to the most melodramatic version of that line Georgia is playing the of the heroic democracy a la Czechoslovakia, c. 1938 being gutted by an expansionist power. As for Palin, she asserted that the Russians had acted without being provoked because that was what the McCain campaign told her to say about the conflict and because this is entirely consistent with the foreign policy biases of McCain’s advisors.
Russophobes never seem to understand that Westerners who object to their distortions and misrepresentations are not apologizing for the Russian government, nor do they approve of Russia’s internal or external policies, but they do object to having our policy debate defined by propaganda and simplistic morality plays about ”democratically-elected governments” being set upon by ”revanchist” Russians. As Greenwald says:
Every time the major party candidates now mention Russia/Georgia — including in the debates — there is full, unequivocal agreement on everything, all premised on the comic-book, Good v. Evil narrative that Georgia is our stalwart democratic ally which, through no fault of their own, was victimized by an expansionist, war-seeking Russia, and we owe them our full protection and unwavering support. There is never a word of criticism toward Georgia or an acknowledgment of the role it played in provoking the conflict, in starting the war. That is the truth that cannot be spoken.
On those rare occasions when it is ever spoken, it has to be hedged about with so many caveats about Moscow’s general perfidy that it loses all of its rhetorical and political force, and if it does not have all those caveats it is denounced as nothing more than an apology for Putin. This obviously undermines the quality of foreign policy debate in this country, as even those who know better avoid speaking out against the absurd establishment policies (in this case, reflexive support for Georgia and its entry into NATO) so that they avoid being ostracized as defenders of foreign authoritarian governments. In the end, that is the purpose of the near-universal condemnation of “Russian aggression” by our political class–to force objections to the dangerous and misguided policies that helped to bring about the war in Georgia to the margins of the debate and to make open criticism of an irrationally close attachment to a north Caucasus state much more politically perilous for anyone in the government.
*For the record, I think the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a blunder by Moscow and very undesirable for the same reasons that I thought recognition of Kosovo was terrible. No final settlement can be reached over these areas if Georgia has not negotiated the terms of their autonomy or independence, just as the situation in Kosovo will never be stable unless Serbia was involved in negotiations to settle its status. Let this be a reminder to those who think that our government can abuse and partition small countries on the other side of the world without consequences: other powers will presume to be able to do the same thing to their neighbors and will from time to time act just as our government has acted.