August 24, 2008
John McCain said it first: "In the 21st century nations don’t invade other nations." George W. Bush said it, too: Russia’s way is not the "way to conduct foreign policy in the 21st Century". And Condoleezza Rice on August 19 said it: "Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that’s its military power. That’s not the way to deal in the 21st century." Outside of the United States, these utterances are greeted with laughter, for they betoken a hypocrisy so ingrained it suggests insanity. The United States looks in the mirror and what do we see? Russia. And what do we say? "That is no way to do things in the 21st century!" And then we go back to reading the interview with General Petraeus on the occupation of Baghdad.
But these statements are a sideshow. The Georgia debacle started on May 4, 2006, with a longer and more considered statement, by Vice President Cheney, in Vilnius, Lithuania. Cheney there threatened Russia with a new Cold War if Russia did not capitulate to American demands of cheap oil for Russia’s pro-American neighbors. "Russia has a choice," he said. The same curious locution, with its undertone of parental menace — the parent who stops payments and knows when to use the whip — was employed by President Bush addressing Iran in 2007. "Iran has a choice." Has a nation ever talked to another nation in this style? But then, has there ever been a nation that sees itself as America sees itself in the 21st century? "Russia has a choice" — the language of a man with his hand on his gun, very sure of his moral as well as physical superiority. This is the language of omnipotence, barely disguised. It is ill-adapted for the purposes of social intercourse, yet finely adapted to threats that have a quality at once intimate and public; threats, indeed, part of whose function is to abort diplomacy.
The larger context of the Cheney threat in Vilnius deserves to be recalled. For along with U.S. recognition of the independence of Kosovo, U.S. pressure for admission of Georgia into NATO, and the insistence on putting U.S. missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, the Vilnius speech was among the most significant precedent conditions for the Russian response to the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali on August 7. Here was Cheney’s peroration in 2006 to the Russians and the countries bordering Russia:
America and all of Europe also want to see Russia in the category of healthy, vibrant democracies. Yet in Russia today, opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade. In many areas of civil society– from religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties — the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people. Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive, and could begin to affect relations with other countries. No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation. And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor, or interfere with democratic movements.
Russia has a choice to make. And there is no question that a return to democratic reform in Russia will generate further success for its people and greater respect among fellow nations. Democratization in Russia helped to end the Cold War, and the Russian people have made heroic progress in overcoming the miseries of the 20th century. They deserve now to live out their peaceful aspirations under a government that upholds freedom at home, and builds good relations abroad.
None of us believes that Russia is fated to become an enemy.
The condescension of the words was palpable and provocative. Sick Russia was invited to become "healthy" like America’s client states. The leaders of Russia were called opponents of freedom, and the vice-president looked to summon the popular affections of the Russian people over the heads of their elected leaders. He tells Russia that it must award a discount on oil to Western-leaning border republics, or else Russia will suffer retaliatory actions. The Russian people, half savage and half wild, are praised for having made "heroic progress" from a regime of peasant farmers and political terrorists to become a half-free, almost civilized country. They are almost ready to join the world of "good relations" that is presided over by America. We Americans, said Cheney, would rather not have Russia as an enemy — it is not "fated" to happen. But it is Russia and not the U.S. that will have most to regret if it disobeys the United States and makes the wrong choice.
This speech was read closely by Vladimir Putin. He commented obliquely on the manner as well as on the substance of Cheney’s Vilnius speech without mentioning it by name, in a stretch of his "Person of the Year" interview in Time on December 31, 2007:
In recent years, we have been told, We are looking forward to meeting you and welcoming you to our civilized Western family of nations. Well, why would you decide that your civilization is the best? There are much more ancient civilizations in this world. Secondly, they tell us, or they hint to us, we are prepared to accept you but our family is a patriarchal family and we are the patriarchs here. In the modern world there may no longer be such relationships. The bloc system of relations must be replaced by an altogether different system based on common rules that are called international law.
In the Time interview, Putin took his stand on the authority of international law against the system of commercial and military alliances which he saw the U.S. building up unnecessarily.
U.S. encouragement and recognition of the independence of Kosovo was the clear policy sequel to the Vilnius speech: a gesture that could only have been read by Russians as a deliberate provocation. They said so at the time. But their indignant reaction barely made the front pages here, and Americans were poorly instructed about its causes. It was a violation of UN resolution 1244, assuring the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, and an open challenge to the security of Russia’s regional ally Serbia. Putin said of the American ratification of Kosovo’s permanent secession on February 22: "The precedent of Kosovo is a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries." Notice that, as in his comments on the Vilnius speech, Putin here compared the American web of alliances with the uniformity of international law. He said in February of the Western nations that had recognized Kosovo: "They have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day it is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face."
We have now seen the second end of the stick, after Kosovo’s separation from Yugoslavia. It is the separation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. There can be little doubt that Putin had this in mind already when he spoke in February.
The mainstream media in the U.S. are now saying that Russia has chosen. What do they suppose this means? The U.S. used Georgia, greedily, as the central corridor for a new Caspian pipeline to deliver oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea, cutting out Russia all along the way. Under Clinton, we brought former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO, even though the menace that gave NATO its reason for being had vanished. With "soft CIA" money from the National Endowment for Democracy and the associated freedom institutes run by the Republican party, the Democratic party, American big business and big labor, we did all we could to foment the "colored" revolutions in Georgia and the Ukraine (T- shirts and slogans, yes, and friendly instruction in the techniques of spontaneous protest, but also the cultivation and careful planting of friendly anti-Russian politicians). All this, Russia watched, while the U.S., under Bush and Clinton and Bush, plunged onward like an unfettered older brother taking the choicest pieces of the estate and the most valued heirlooms; but who was counting? Obsequious Europe never said no.
When Mikheil Saakashvili attacked the Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali, he expected to find success, or, at least, some cashable Western support. Part of his wish was granted. As soon as the Russians counter-attacked, an American politician was ready with threats and dire prophecies. John McCain was out of the gate on Georgia long before George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice or Robert Gates made their first statements for the record. Why? Who gave McCain his early cue?
A fair bet is Saakashvili, through his closest American friend and former agent, Randy Scheunemann. Since Scheunemann is John McCain’s adviser on foreign policy, this looks like a dangerous contact — dangerous, that is, for the security of the United States. Yet it follows a pattern. Scheunemann was the agent of Ahmed Chalabi in agitating for the war against Iraq. He is a former director of the Project for the New American Century, which welcomed a world at permanent war, dominated by the U.S., as the order of the 21st century. And Scheunemann is as closely linked as it is possible to be — while holding a nominally different post — with the American Enterprise Institute, the Office of the Vice President, and the Weekly Standard: the most drastic and persistent lobbying network for the Iraq war, and the group that lately pressed the hardest for a war with Iran.
The idea of bombing Iran did not catch fire this summer. But these people are ambitious; they never let up one project without starting another. In their way of thinking, the United States — to keep the archaic Constitution at bay, and our enemies on the run — must always be occupied with a war somewhere. Iraq may be turning into a peaceful occupation; Afghanistan is getting to be an old story. Why not start a war in Georgia? At best, you push back against Putin, and show him to be a hollow threat. Or — a different advantage — you make a pitiful spectacle of the tears and the trampled pride of Saakashvili, and prove the brutality of Russia which has never really changed. So you restart the Cold War — a very good thing indeed. As for the run for president: on this issue as on FISA and Iran, Barack Obama can easily be shown to be a diluted version of McCain.
Interviewed on Larry King on August 14, Mikhail Gorbachev said it was hard to imagine even Saakashvili would take so rash a step without encouragement from the West. Yet, if there was a single Western luminary he would he would have wanted to consult, it was surely his old lobbyist and personal adviser Randy Scheunemann. The calculation by Scheunemann must have been that even if things went badly at first, for Georgia, the result of Russian suppression would be good for John McCain. Besides, McCain, as president, could eventually rescue Saakashvili by another path.
Seven and a half years into an administration that seems likely to go beyond January in all but name — so deeply are its patterns now ingrained in the culture of lawmakers and the mainstream media–the signs are strong that we are run by a government-within-the-government. The heart of the second government may not lie now in the connections between the West Wing and the OVP, since the president now wants to know even less than he previously did; but the vice president is interested as always in everything: his men would be sure to know of the unorthodox gambles in the campaign of Scheunemann-McCain. And Cheney, as it happens, spoke out soon after McCain, and in language closely aligned with his.
To get an impartial picture of events in Georgia, especially in the first week after August 8, one had to rely on the foreign press — for example the excellent summary article by Thomas de Waal in the Guardian for August 10. James Traub, who wrote the New York Times lead in the Week in Review for August 10, conceded that "Georgians are a melodramatic people, and few more so than their hyperactive president," but Traub himself chose to summon the melodramatic year 1938; and only in paragraph 20 did he come to recount Saakashvili’s ill-advised act of "retaking" Abkhazia. The main Times reporter in Georgia, C.J. Chivers, made efforts at objectivity that grew sharper as the fight went on, but the straight stories by Chivers were often accompanied by "color" reporting from Andrew Kramer, who spoke of Georgian trees as "immolated" by Russian attacks. On August 11, in a story headed "Bitter Refrain Amid Retreat: Where Is U.S.", Kramer quoted, with a clearly propagandistic effect, a Georgian soldier’s plaintive cry: "We killed as many of them as we could. But where are our friends?" On August 19, another story by Kramer quoted an official, Temuri Yakobashvili, against the stationary attitude of the Russians, identifying Yakobashvili only as the "reintegration minister" of Georgia.
For information on the identity of Yakobashvili and the meaning of his mysterious title, one had to look outside the American press, to Gideon Levy in Haaretz, who wrote on August 17 in a piece called "Not the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys":
The U.S. president’s remarks on Friday that the world would not accept bullying and intimidation could only raise a bitter smile.
George W. Bush talking about bullying? The U.S. president talking about intimidation? Who set off two bullying wars this decade? Who tried to solve problems and replace regimes through intimidation if not our friend in the White House? Which power spilled more blood this decade? Russia or "the leader of the free world"?
For the West, everything goes, from placing missiles on Polish soil to discussing Georgia’s joining NATO. But Russia is not even allowed to respond?
Speaking of Yakobashvili and remarking the Georgian minister’s fluent command of Hebrew, Levy pointed out that this minister of reintegration ("another white-washed term for occupation") was himself "responsible in the name of his government for two controversial regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He ignores the fact that the inhabitants of these areas do not want to be part of his country." And Levy drew an analogy between the actions of Russia and of Israel in response to encroachment: "This" — the disproportion of the Russian response — "is also how Israel responded to another provocation, the killing and abduction of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. This is how countries, including freer and more democratic ones than Russia, respond to provocations." Where the Times at first omitted to mention Israel, Levy took seriously his country’s implication in the Georgia debacle. "Israel might pay a heavy price for the drones and training by Israel Ziv and Gal Hirsch, our new mercenaries in Georgia." To read Haaretz after The New York Times is an edifying experience. And it always prompts reflection. Mikheil Saakashvili is in many ways an American politician, just as Benjamin Netanyahu is in many ways an American politician. The relationship — of patronage and of aggressive advice — between Randi Scheunemann and Saakashvili is like the relationship of Richard Perle to Netanyahu. If one looks back over the past two weeks of the Georgia affair, one is struck by the memory of certain phrases from "A Clean Break," Perle’s 1996 public memorandum to Netanyahu on how to destroy the Oslo Accords. "A Clean Break" must have been a pattern, too, for the advice given by Scheunemann to Saakashvili on how to restart the Cold War. "Mr. Netanyahu," wrote Perle, "can highlight his desire to cooperate more closely with the United States on anti-missile defense in order to remove the threat of blackmail which even a weak and distant army can pose to either state." The absorption of Poland and the Czech Republic into the Western design of missile defense has followed exactly that plan.
Again from Richard Perle’s "A Clean Break": "Prime Minister Netanyahu can formulate the policies and stress themes he favors in language familiar to the Americans by tapping into themes of American administrations during the Cold War which apply well to Israel. If Israel wants to test certain propositions that require a benign American reaction, then the best time to do so is before November, 1996." For November 1996, read November 2008. Today, the "proposition" being "tested" is America’s willingness to restart the Cold War; while the "benign American reaction" in this case (and by benign Perle means favorable) is the American answer to a controlled experiment in provocation by Georgia. Even if it misfired — as in fact it has done — Perle thought such a test could be relied on to heat the imagination of American politicians and voters alike. Perle and Scheunemann converge in one other interesting way. Georgia and Israel are linked now, as Gideon Levy says, by Israel’s decision to supply arms and training to the project of "reintegrating" Georgia’s pro-Russian sectors.
Under the new American regime of military force, the world does not respect us as it once did. But it does fear us. And for a nation that is militaristic — whose highest virtue is military glory, whose medals of freedom are chiefly awarded to military men, whose idea of genius is most nearly answered by the general who devises the battle plan — for such a nation as we are becoming, to be feared may be the highest of attainments. The neoconservatives have long said so. This was the burden of their two leading documents published in the year 2000: the William Kristol-Robert Kagan anthology Present Dangers, and the Donald Kagan-Gary Schmidt-Thomas Donnelly treatise Rebuilding America’s Defenses. An essay exploring the methods for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, in the first of these volumes, was contributed by Richard Perle. The second and more technical volume contained the famous sentence about the political utility of "some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor."
The neoconservatives have told us that America is, and ought to remain for a century, a national security state whose overriding interest is to achieve global dominance; by commercial means where possible, and by military means where necessary. This is their "proposition." For the past eight years we Americans have been living their plan without ever having debated it. Thus far, the campaign of Barack Obama, like the campaign of John Kerry which it resembles in other ways, appears to be intent on avoiding the larger issue.
A final somber event marked the past two weeks besides the Russian clash with Georgia. This was the death of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. His passing was marked by the American press as an occasion to celebrate his dissent from Soviet tyranny; by implication he was recruited to the cause of Georgia; yet the fact is that Solzhenitsyn was in sympathy with the revival of national pride under Vladimir Putin; and he had no love for the adventurism of a leader like Saakashvili. Hardly any American publication noticed that one of Solzhenitsyn’s last writings had been an article in Izvestia, in April, rebutting the spurious charge that the famine in the Ukraine, in the early 1930s, had been a case of genocide (grist for the nationalist mill of Georgia and Ukraine). The Ukraine famine was not, wrote Solzhenitsyn, an effect of national persecution but a politically induced catastrophe engineered by the Communist party. Of the Western journalists, publicists, and leaders who freely toss about the word genocide, sometimes as a calumny to clear fresh acts of annexation, Solzhenitsyn said with finality: "They have never really understood our history." This charge he applied to all of the West from Paris to London, and from Washington to Vilnius. "All they want," he concluded, "is a fable, no matter how demented."
We may consider again Solzhenitsyn’s words of April 2008 as we digest the earliest chapter of our newest fable — whether out of the mouth of Randy Scheunemann, or the revised schedule of the American Enterprise Institute, or comments ad-libbed by Senator Biden after a rapid tour of a global hotspot. But let us hope that Solzhenitsyn was wrong. To find a new war and to make a new enemy, will we really be satisfied with any fable, no matter how demented?
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