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Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Hostilities between a small government on the border of a regional power turn into full-fledged war after the smaller power lobs a few military weapons endangering civilians and escalating the conflict into open warfare and violations of territorial sovereignty by the regional power. Both sides are generally considered responsible for increasing tensions with proactive actions in the extensive lead-up to the war. Both sides are accused of committing atrocities and killing or harming civilians during the war.

This description in broad strokes describes both the most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and August war between Russia and Georgia.

Yet those on the left have tended to favor the regional power in the case of the Russian-Georgian conflict and to oppose the regional power in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. My impression is that while a majority of those on the left have no strong opinion on these issues, seeing each as complicated and unfortunate, a very prominent minority on the left have strongly favored Russia and opposed Israel. Looking at the conflicts and the issues themselves, it’s hard for me to find a single convincing reason that is not America-centric.

The American political establishment has tended to favor Georgia – as it is a liberal democracy on the border of a major competing power. Similarly, the American political establishment has tended to favor Israel as it is a liberal democracy in the midst of a region full of autocracies (as well as for domestic political reasons.) Both countries have been considered strong allies of America and have strong military support from America.

Yet aside from these facts, the circumstances surrounding their most recent wars and their history with their neighbors are very different:

Few would dispute that Hamas is a terrorist organization with a political branch that was elected in a relatively free election. Hamas refuses to recognize the right of it’s neighboring state to exist, accusing the Israel of driving it’s people from their homes over fifty years ago in the mass migration that resulted from the 1948 war for Palestine in which nearly 950 thousand Jews were expelled from or fled neighboring Arab countries and in which 750 thousand Palestinians were pushed out of areas controlled by Israel.

The United National Movement Party is a somewhat nationalist political party elected in a free election which refused to recognize the right of nearby disputed territories to be independent or to join neighboring Russia.  Many ethnic Georgians were driven from their homes in Abhkazia and South Ossetia nearly twenty years ago in ethnic hostilities. For example less than twenty years ago, nearly half of the residents of Abhkazia were ethnic Georgians. Over 80% of that population was driven out of Abhkazia or killed in ethnic hostilities in the early 1990s. After this ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and ethnic Georgians were not blameless in this – a majority of the remaining inhabitants of these two traditional parts of Georgia sought protection from an international peacekeeping force and eventually, to ally themselves with and perhaps join the Russian Federation.

Israel is the strongest single power in the region but has been attacked by many of it’s neighbors since it’s existence. It is a democracy in an autocratic region. The descendants of  the former occupants of Israel’s land demand the right to return to the homeland of their parents or grandparents, and the official government of the Palestinians has often embraced suicide terrorism and attacks on civilians in order to achieve it’s goals. Israel has been granting the Palestinians some measures of autonomy but is still very wary of the security threat that exists.

Russia is a regional power with great power aspirations that has turned away from an open democracy in recent years in favor of some form of either tyranny or oligopoly. It has long supported the separatists in the disputed regions of Georgia in their bid to win independence. There has been growing concern in Russia that America’s support for Georgia was an attempt to check Russia’s regional influence. Georgia’s push to join NATO only deepened their concern – especially as Abhkazia has strategic importance to Russia due to an oil pipeline being constructed there.

So what am I missing here? Both Russia’s and Israel’s offenses hurt civilians as well as more legitimate targets. Both over-matched their opponents significantly. Both were in measure provoked (although both Georgians and Hamas believe they were the ones provoked.)

If anything, Hamas’ explicit embrace of terrorism should count against it. The fact that Israel is a democracy that faces an imminent security threat from the Palestinians – and especially Hamas, which is officially dedicated to Israel’s destruction – and has been attacked by Hamas and other Palestinian forces in the recent past would seem to partially explicate Israel’s actions, even if one considers them overreactions.

At the same time, Russia violated an international boundary when it was not facing an imminent threat. It has not been attacked by Georgia in the recent past if ever.

I think it’s probably true that most political convictions are based more on intuition than reason – but can anyone enlighten me as to a good reason to oppose Israel’s attacks on Hamas and to support Russia’s attacks on Georgia?

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Posted in Foreign Policy, Israel, Politics, Russia | No Comments »

“We are all Georgians!”: Fantasy as Foreign Policy

Monday, September 8th, 2008

[Photo by World Economic Forum licensed under Creative Commons.]

[digg-reddit-me]Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times reported yesterday on Cheney’s visits to former Soviet states:

Mr. Cheney, who visited Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine this week to express American support, offered no new proposals either, but he described the conflict as a new test for NATO that required a unified response.

This has been the baffling and fundamental flaw of the neoconservative approach to foreign policy. How America responded to 9/11, how America endured the occupation of Iraq, how America responded to the Iranian’s development of nuclear weapons, how America responded to Russian aggression in Georgia – each of these represented – in the words of Bush, Cheney, McCain, and other neoconservatives – a “test” of America’s and our allies’ resolve.

Yet – the neoconservatives only offer a single way for America to pass each of these tests: Escalate matters until America can plausibly threaten to use military force.

That was America’s justifiable response to 9/11. It was the Bush administration’s strategy with Saddam Hussein. It has been Cheney’s strategy for containing Iran. It is McCain’s strategy for confronting Russia. The reason neoconservatives are so eager to use military force – instead of diplomacy, containment, alliances, creating and living by systems of rules for international affairs, or economic pressure – is that they believe America’s military might can solve any problem. They are correct that our military superiority ensures that we can defeat any other military on the planet. But what they do not acknowledge is that the military is a blunt weapon and that without a draft, it can only be deployed under limited circumstances and for limited periods. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate these lessons – yet McCain, Bush, Cheney, and company do not seem to have noticed.

Thus, McCain invoked Kennedy’s defense of Berlin when Russia invaded Georgia – saying, “We are all Georgians!” Kennedy had proclaimed, “Eich bin ein Berlinier” to demonstrate our resolve to the Soviet Union – that if they tried to take Berlin, we would protect it as if it were our own home. McCain, by saying that we are all Georgians, was committing the United States to take military action against Russia. Yet, if that is his plan, he has not admitted it. If it is not his plan, then he has not been following the advice given by his hero, Teddy Roosevelt:

Speak softly, and carry a big stick.

McCain talks a good game – but if he means half of what he says, we’ll have more than one new war on our hands by the time he’s through. Either way, he’s not the president I’m hoping for.

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Posted in Election 2008, Foreign Policy, McCain, National Security, Politics, Russia | 1 Comment »

Quote of the Day

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Outrage is not a policy. Worry is not a policy. Indignation is not a policy. Even though outrage, worry and indignation are all appropriate in this situation, they shouldn’t be mistaken for policy and they shouldn’t be mistaken for strategy.

Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under President Clinton, Russia specialist, and president of the Brookings Institution, commenting on the McCain campaign’s and the Bush administration’s response to the Georgia crisis.

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A Timeline of the Russian-Georgian War

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve refrained from writing about the Georgia crisis until now, because although I have had an interest in Russia, and had been sensing a growing wariness about Russia among the rarified field of foreign policy experts, I did not have an immediate sense of what was going on in that conflict.

Although it was clear that Russia was increasingly attempting to dominate it’s near-abroad, the timing of the conflict seemed to indicate that it was Georgian President Saakashvili who had most to gain.

In my discussions with others about the matter, there seems to be a great deal of confusion – and narratives and counter-narratives driven by propaganda have dominated these discussions.  So, as a preliminary step, and for backwards refences, I am constructing here a timeline of events and a list of the players.

The Players

Georgia has been part of various Russian empires since the 1800s. After Communists took over in 1917, Georgia declared independence. By 1921, the Soviet Union had attacked and subjugated it again. As the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989, Georgia again began to push for independence. This led to the massacre of Georgian citizens by the Soviet army at an unauthorized but peaceful demonstration. By 1991, Georgia was again independent. But ethnic tensions soon led to two civil wars taking place – with Russians supporting the forces that opposed the central Georgian government in both places.

One of the civil wars took place in Abkhazia, where Russian supported the minority Abhkaz who sought to ethnically cleanse their part of the country. A 1989 census reveals that just under half of the country’s population was ethnically Georgian (239,872) and under 20% was Abkhaz (93,267). Fourteen years later, The Abkhaz made up over 40% of the population with only a small rise in total population (94,606) while ethnic Georgians now accounted for just over 20% of the population (45,952). The Georgian population in Abkazia decreased by almost 200,000 over this time. Of course, these statistics do not tell the entire story. The Abkhaz minority had opposed the Georgian attempt to achieve indedependence from Russia and both sides had used ethnicly directed violence in the civil war in the early 1990s. See the Human Rights Watch report on the conflict. (PDF). Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in Abkhazia since the end of the violence.

The other Georgian civil war took place in South Ossetia. South Ossetia has been considered part of Georgia for some time – and was incorporated into the Russian empire as part of Georgia in 1801, and was part of Georgia when it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1917 and 1991. However, in both instances, the South Ossetians opposed breaking from the Soviet Union – and took up arms with the support of the Russians against the central Georgian government.  The Soviet Union’s most prominent leader, Josef Stalin, was, in fact, from the country of Georgia, and an ethnic Ossetian. When Georgia declared independence, the South Ossetians opposed this and boycotted elections. After Georgia established it’s independence, a civil war broke out with some 25,000 ethnic Georgians fleeing the region with ethnic violence being used by both sides. By 1992, a peacekeeping force led by the Russians, but including both Ossetians and Georgians was able to enforce a peace agreement. There was relative peace in South Ossetia until 2004 when tensions began to mount. The Russians had continued to build up their peacekeeping force in the region, and had been supplying the South Ossetian army with large caches of weapons. They had allowed free reign to various criminal gangs operating out of South Ossetia (including one that attempted to sell nuclear materials to a joint US/Georgian sting operation.)

Russia considered the American alliance with Georgia (as well as American alliances with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuiania, Ukraine, Poland, Kazakhstan, and other former Soviet colonies) to be a regional challenge to Russian dominance. When America and Europe recognized the independence of Kosovo (a part of Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia), Putin declared that he would begin to push for independence for the two disputed regions in Georgia. Russia – with it’s peacekeepers in each region and supply of arms to local militias and militaries – already exercised de facto control over these regions. Moreover, inundated with a mountain of cash from it’s sale of oil and natural gas, Russia has begun to act more assertively in international affairs.

America saw the small democracy of Georgia as a natural ally. America supplied arms and training to the Georgia military. Since the Rose Revolution of 2003 in which the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, took power, America has grown closer to Georgia and recently pushed it’s membership in NATO. Aside from it’s democracy, Georgia is also seen as useful from the American perspective because it can be used as a counter to increasing Russian influence in the region.

A Timeline

From 2004 to 2008, tensions between Russia and Georgia mount.

August 8, 2007: Georgia claimed that a Russian jet violated it’s airspace and fired a missile, which did not explode. American and European countries urged both countries to ratchet down the rhetoric.

In March 2008, things began to escalate. America recognized Kosovo as an independent nation. Kosovo was part of Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, and the Russian opposed the independence of Kosovo. Russia threatened to take steps to escalate the situation in South Ossetia and Abhkazia.

Later in March, Russia took diplomatic steps to further the process of recognizing these two regions as independent states.

In April 2008, the Georgian government accused the Russians of shooting down an unmanned drone in Georgian airspace. Russia denied this. A United Nations report later backs up the Georgian version of events. The rhetoric escalates on both sides as they both accuse the other of attempting to escalate the conflict.

May 2008 sees Russia inceasing it’s peacekeeping force in Abhkazia. Seperatists in Abhkazia claim to have shot down Georgian drones operating over Abhkazia. Georgia denied having any drones operating there. (The Georgians are probably lying about this.)

In July 2008, Russian fighter jets flew over South Ossetia, into Georgian airspace. Moscow claimed it violated Georgia’s territory in order to “cool heads” in Georgia’s capitol. Georgia withdrew it’s ambassador to Moscow in protest.

Meanwhile, mixed messages are being sent. The United States continued to express strong support of Georgia and Saakashvili in public and to caution him in private to avoid taking any steps to escalate the situation. At the same time, Russia’s peacekeepers are allowing various criminal gangs to operate out of South Ossetia, and periodic attacks by Ossetian seperatists into Georgia are overlooked.

August 1, 2008: Fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian forces breaks out. Georgia accuses the South Ossetians of shelling nearby Georgian villages. The seperatists deny this.

August 5, 2008: As ethnic South Ossetians begin to evacuate into Russia, the Russian ambassador declares that Russia will defend South Ossetia against Georgia.

August 7, 2008: Georgian President Saakashvili orders a ceasefire, but fighting still intensifies. Later in the day, in a televised address, he orders Georgian forces to remove what he calls the “criminal regime” in South Ossetia.

August 8, 2008: Russian troops storm South Ossetia with massive force pushing back the Georgians, and launching attacks deep into Georgia to entirely destroy it’s military infrastructure. Russia claims that Georgia had killed thousands of Ossetians in an effort to ethnically cleanse the region. Human Righs Watch is unable to find any evidence of this, finding only 45 civilian deaths in South Ossetia. However, they find massive evidence of ethnically motivated attacks on ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia and widespread looting by seperatists.

August 9, 2008: Russian-backed seperatists in Abkhazia launch an attack on the region still controlled by ethnic Georgians who wish to remain part of Georgia.

August 10, 2008: The Russians move SS-21 medium-range ballistic missile launchers into South Ossetia, weapons which could potentially be nuclear.

August 11, 2008: Russians deploy paratroopers in Abhkazia to raid Georgia proper.

August 13, 2008: Georgia withdraws all of it’s forces from the disputed territories. Despite a ceasefire order by the Kremlin, Russian forces occupy the country’s main highway and attacks the city of Gori, splitting the nation in two.

Human Rights Watch issues a report documenting the burning and looting of ethnic Georgian villages as well as the restraint of the Georgian army in South Ossetia.

August 15, 2008: Human Rights Watch reports that Russia used cluster bombs on the civilian population of Georgia.

August 16, 2008: Russians occupy the Georgian port city of Poti and several other strategic positions within the nation and advance within 34 miles of the Georgian capitol of Tblisi. The Associated Press reports that ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia have been drafted as forced laborers under guard by Russian and South Ossetian troops.

August 17, 2008: The Russian President Medvedev announces that Russian troops will begin to pull out of the undisputed territory of Georgia on Monday.

Edit: August 18, 2008: In a report meant to sum up the human rights violations in this conflict to date, Human Rights Watch reports that the Georgians’ used “indiscriminate force during their assault on Tskhinvali and neighboring villages on August 7-8, [caused] numerous civilian casualties and extensive destruction.” The report mainly describes:

Russian military’s use of indiscriminate force and its seemingly targeted attacks on civilians, including on a civilian convoy. The deliberate use of force against civilians or civilian objects is a war crime. Human Rights Watch has also confirmed the Russian military’s use of cluster bombs in two towns in Georgia.

Ian Traynor of Britain’s The Guardian and Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post each had insightful columns this weekend analyzing the conflict with clarity.

Dobbs summarizes the war:

Saakashvili’s decision to gamble everything on a lightning grab for Tskhinvali brings to mind the comment of the 19th-century French statesman Talleyrand: “It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.”

Michael Walzer in the liberal Dissent magazine also has a good piece.

But the single most important insight came in a column by this blog’s nemesis, Paul Krugman, last Friday:

By itself, as I said, the war in Georgia isn’t that big a deal economically. But it does mark the end of the Pax Americana — the era in which the United States more or less maintained a monopoly on the use of military force. And that raises some real questions about the future of globalization. [My emphasis.]

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Posted in Foreign Policy, National Security | 7 Comments »

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