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Ossetia-Georgia-Russia-U.S.A. Towards a Second Cold War?
By Noam Chomsky CounterPunch September 12, 2008
Aghast at the atrocities committed by US forces
invading the Philippines , and the rhetorical flights
about liberation and noble intent that routinely
accompany crimes of state, Mark Twain threw up his
hands at his inability to wield his formidable weapon
of satire. The immediate object of his frustration was
the renowned General Funston. "No satire of Funston
could reach perfection," Twain lamented, "because
Funston occupies that summit himself... [he is] satire incarnated."
It is a thought that often comes to mind, again in
August 2008 during the Georgia-Ossetia-Russia war.
George Bush, Condoleezza Rica and other dignitaries
solemnly invoked the sanctity of the United Nations,
warning that Russia could be excluded from
international institutions "by taking actions in
Georgia that are inconsistent with" their principles.
The sovereignty and territorial integrity of all
nations must be rigorously honored, they intoned - "all
nations," that is, apart from those that the US chooses
to attack: Iraq , Serbia , perhaps Iran , and a list of
others too long and familiar to mention.
The junior partner joined in as well. British foreign
secretary David Miliband accused Russia of engaging in
"19th century forms of diplomacy" by invading a
sovereign state, something Britain would never
contemplate today. That "is simply not the way that
international relations can be run in the 21st
century," he added, echoing the decider-in-chief, who
said that invasion of "a sovereign neighboring
state...is unacceptable in the 21st century." Mexico
and Canada therefore need not fear further invasions
and annexation of much of their territory, because the
US now only invades states that are not on its borders,
though no such constraint holds for its clients, as
Lebanon learned once again in 2006.
"The moral of this story is even more enlightening,"
Serge Halimi writes in Le Monde Diplomatique and
CounterPunch newsletter, "when, to defend his country's
borders, the charming pro-American Saakashvili
repatriates some of the 2,000 soldiers he had sent to
invade Iraq ," one of the largest contingents apart from
the two warrior states.
Prominent analysts joined the chorus. Fareed Zakaria
applauded Bush's observation that Russia 's behavior is
unacceptable today, unlike the 19th century, "when the
Russian intervention would have been standard operating
procedure for a great power." We therefore must devise
a strategy for bringing Russia "in line with the
civilized world," where intervention is unthinkable.
There were, to be sure, some who shared Mark Twain's
despair. One distinguished example is Chris Patten,
former EU commissioner for external relations, chairman
of the British Conservative Party, chancellor of Oxford
University and a member of the House of Lords. He wrote
that the Western reaction "is enough to make even the
cynical shake their heads in disbelief" - referring to
Europe's failure to respond vigorously to the
effrontery of Russian leaders, who, "like 19th-century
tsars, want a sphere of influence around their borders."
Patten rightly distinguishes Russia from the global
superpower, which long ago passed the point where it
demanded a sphere of influence around its borders, and
demands a sphere of influence over the entire world. It
also acts vigorously to enforce that demand, in accord
with the Clinton doctrine that Washington has the right
to use military force to defend vital interests such as
"ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy
supplies and strategic resources" - and in the real world, far more.
Clinton was breaking no new ground, of course. His
doctrine derives from standard principles formulated by
high-level planners during World War II, which offered
the prospect of global dominance. In the postwar world,
they determined, the US should aim "to hold
unquestioned power" while ensuring the "limitation of
any exercise of sovereignty" by states that might
interfere with its global designs. To secure these
ends, "the foremost requirement [is] the rapid
fulfillment of a program of complete rearmament," a
core element of "an integrated policy to achieve
military and economic supremacy for the United States ."
The plans laid during the war were implemented in
various ways in the years that followed.
The goals are deeply rooted in stable institutional
structures. Hence they persist through changes in
occupancy of the White House, and are untroubled by the
opportunity for "peace dividends," the disappearance of
the major rival from the world scene, or other marginal
irrelevancies. Devising new challenges is never beyond
the reach of doctrinal managers, as when Ronald Reagan
pulled on his cowboy boots and declared a national
emergency because the Nicaraguan army was only two days
from Harlingen Texas , and might lead the hordes who are
about to "sweep over the United States and take what we
have," as Lyndon Johnson lamented when he called for
holding the line in Vietnam . Most ominously, those
holding the reins may actually believe their own words.
Returning to the efforts to elevate Russia to the
civilized world, the seven charter members of the Group
of Eight industrialized countries issued a statement
"condemning the action of our fellow G8 member,"
Russia, which has yet to comprehend the Anglo-American
commitment to non-intervention. The European Union held
a rare emergency meeting to condemn Russia 's crime, its
first meeting since the invasion of Iraq , which
elicited no condemnation.
Russia called for an emergency session of the Security
Council, but no consensus was reached because,
according to Council diplomats, the US , Britain , and
some others rejected a phrase that called on both sides
"to renounce the use of force."
The typical reactions recall Orwell's observations on
the "indifference to reality" of the "nationalist," who
"not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed
by his own side, but ... has a remarkable capacity for
not even hearing about them."
The basic facts are not seriously in dispute. South
Ossetia, along with the much more significant region of
Abkhazia, were assigned by Stalin to his native
Georgia. Western leaders sternly admonish that Stalin's
directives must be respected, despite the strong
opposition of Ossetians and Abkhazians. The provinces
enjoyed relative autonomy until the collapse of the
USSR. In 1990, Georgia 's ultranationalist president
Zviad Gamsakhurdia abolished autonomous regions and
invaded South Ossetia . The bitter war that followed
left 1000 dead and tens of thousands of refugees, with
the capital city of Tskhinvali "battered and depopulated" (New York Times).
A small Russian force then supervised an uneasy truce,
broken decisively on August 7, 2008, when Georgian
president Saakashvili's ordered his forces to invade.
According to "an extensive set of witnesses," the Times
reports, Georgia 's military at once "began pounding
civilian sections of the city of Tskhinvali , as well as
a Russian peacekeeping base there, with heavy barrages
of rocket and artillery fire." The predictable Russian
response drove Georgian forces out of South Ossetia ,
and Russia went on to conquer parts of Georgia , then
partially withdrawing to the vicinity of South Ossetia .
There were many casualties and atrocities. As is
normal, the innocent suffered severely.
Russia reported at first that ten Russian peacekeepers
were killed by Georgian shelling. The West took little
notice. That too is normal. There was, for example, no
reaction when Aviation Week reported that 200 Russians
were killed in an Israeli air raid in Lebanon in 1982
during a US -backed invasion that left some 15-20,000
dead, with no credible pretext beyond strengthening
Israeli control over the occupied West Bank.
Among Ossetians who fled north, the "prevailing view,"
according to the London Financial Times, "is that
Georgia's pro-western leader, Mikheil Saakashvili,
tried to wipe out their breakaway enclave." Ossetian
militias, under Russian eyes, then brutally drove out
Georgians, in areas beyond Ossetia as well. " Georgia
said its attack had been necessary to stop a Russian
attack that already had been under way," the New York
Times reports, but weeks later "there has been no
independent evidence, beyond Georgia 's insistence that
its version is true, that Russian forces were attacking
before the Georgian barrages."
In Russia , the Wall Street Journal reports,
"legislators, officials and local analysts have
embraced the theory that the Bush administration
encouraged Georgia, its ally, to start the war in order
to precipitate an international crisis that would play
up the national-security experience of Sen. John
McCain, the Republican presidential candidate." In
contrast, French author Bernard-Henri Levy, writing in
the New Republic , proclaims that "no one can ignore the
fact that President Saakashvili only decided to act
when he no longer had a choice, and war had already
come. In spite of this accumulation of facts that
should have been blindingly obvious to all scrupulous,
good-faith observers, many in the media rushed as one
man toward the thesis of the Georgians as instigators,
as irresponsible provocateurs of the war."
The Russian propaganda system made the mistake of
presenting evidence, which was easily refuted. Its
Western counterparts, more wisely, keep to
authoritative pronouncements, like Levy's denunciation
of the major Western media for ignoring what is
"blindingly obvious to all scrupulous, good-faith
observers" for whom loyalty to the state suffices to
establish The Truth - which, perhaps, is even true,
serious analysts might conclude.
The Russians are losing the "propaganda war," BBC
reported, as Washington and its allies have succeeded
in "presenting the Russian actions as aggression and
playing down the Georgian attack into South Ossetia on
August 7, which triggered the Russian operation,"
though "the evidence from South Ossetia about that
attack indicates that it was extensive and damaging."
Russia has "not yet learned how to play the media
game," the BBC observes. That is natural. Propaganda
has typically become more sophisticated as countries
become more free and the state loses the ability to
control the population by force.
The Russian failure to provide credible evidence was
partially overcome by the Financial Times, which
discovered that the Pentagon had provided combat
training to Georgian special forces commandos shortly
before the Georgian attack on August 7, revelations
that "could add fuel to accusations by Vladimir Putin,
Russian prime minister, last month that the US had
'orchestrated' the war in the Georgian enclave." The
training was in part carried out by former US special
forces recruited by private military contractors,
including MPRI, which, as the journal notes, "was hired
by the Pentagon in 1995 to train the Croatian military
prior to their invasion of the ethnically-Serbian
Krajina region, which led to the displacement of
200,000 refugees and was one of the worst incidents of
ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars." The US-backed
Krajina expulsion (generally estimated at 250,000, with
many killed) was possibly the worst case of ethnic
cleansing in Europe since World War II. Its fate in
approved history is rather like that of photographs of
Trotsky in Stalinist Russia, for simple and sufficient
reasons: it does not accord with the required image of
US nobility confronting Serbian evil.
The toll of the August 2008 Caucasus war is subject to
varying estimates. A month afterwards, the Financial
Times cited Russian reports that "at least 133
civilians died in the attack, as well as 59 of its own
peacekeepers," while in the ensuing Russian mass
invasion and aerial bombardment of Georgia , according
to the FT, 215 Georgians died, including 146 soldiers
and 69 civilians. Further revelations are likely to follow.
In the background lie two crucial issues. One is
control over pipelines to Azerbaijan and Central Asia .
Georgia was chosen as a corridor by Clinton to bypass
Russia and Iran, and was also heavily militarized for
the purpose. Hence Georgia is "a very major and
strategic asset to us," Zbigniew Brzezinski observes.
It is noteworthy that analysts are becoming less
reticent in explaining real US motives in the region as
pretexts of dire threats and liberation fade and it
becomes more difficult to deflect Iraqi demands for
withdrawal of the occupying army. Thus the editors of
the Washington Post admonished Barack Obama for
regarding Afghanistan as "the central front" for the
United States, reminding him that Iraq "lies at the
geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains
some of the world's largest oil reserves," and
Afghanistan's "strategic importance pales beside that
of Iraq ." A welcome, if belated, recognition of reality
about the US invasion.
The second issue is expansion of NATO to the East,
described by George Kennan in 1997 as "the most fateful
error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war
era, [which] may be expected to inflame the
nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies
in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the
development of Russian democracy; to restore the
atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations."
As the USSR collapsed, Mikhail Gorbachev made a
concession that was astonishing in the light of recent
history and strategic realities: he agreed to allow a
united Germany to join a hostile military alliance.
This "stunning concession" was hailed by Western media,
NATO, and President Bush I, who called it a
demonstration of "statesmanship ... in the best
interests of all countries of Europe, including the Soviet Union ."
Gorbachev agreed to the stunning concession on the
basis of "assurances that NATO would not extend its
jurisdiction to the east, 'not one inch' in [Secretary
of State] Jim Baker's exact words." This reminder by
Jack Matlock, the leading Soviet expert of the Foreign
Service and US ambassador to Russia in the crucial
years 1987 to 1991, is confirmed by Strobe Talbott, the
highest official in charge of Eastern Europe in the
Clinton administration. On the basis of a full review
of the diplomatic record, Talbott reports that
"Secretary of State Baker did say to then Soviet
foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in the context of
the Soviet Union 's reluctant willingness to let a
unified Germany remain part of NATO, that NATO would
not move to the east."
Clinton quickly reneged on that commitment, also
dismissing Gorbachev's effort to end the Cold War with
cooperation among partners. NATO also rejected a
Russian proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free-zone from
the Arctic to the Black Sea , which would have
"interfered with plans to extend NATO," strategic
analyst and former NATO planner Michael MccGwire observes.
Rejecting these possibilities, the US took a
triumphalist stand that threatened Russian security and
also played a major role in driving Russia to severe
economic and social collapse, with millions of deaths.
The process was sharply escalated by Bush's further
expansion of NATO, dismantling of crucial disarmament
agreements, and aggressive militarism. Matlock writes
that Russia might have tolerated incorporation of
former Russian satellites into NATO if it "had not
bombed Serbia and continued expanding. But, in the
final analysis, ABM missiles in Poland , and the drive
for Georgia and Ukraine in NATO crossed absolute red
lines. The insistence on recognizing Kosovo
independence was sort of the very last straw. Putin had
learned that concessions to the U.S. were not
reciprocated, but used to promote U.S. dominance in the
world.Once he had the strength to resist, he did so," in Georgia .
Clinton officials argue that expansion of NATO posed no
military threat, and was no more than a benign move to
allow former Russian satellites to join the EU
(Talbott). That is hardly persuasive. Austria , Sweden
and Finland are in the EU but not NATO. If the Warsaw
Pact had survived and was incorporating Latin American
countries - let alone Canada and Mexico - the US would
not easily be persuaded that the Pact is just a Quaker
meeting. There should be no need to review the record
of US violence to block mostly fanciful ties to Moscow
in "our little region over here," the Western
hemisphere, to quote Secretary of War Henry Stimson
when he explained that all regional systems must be
dismantled after World II, apart from our own, which
are to be extended.
To underscore the conclusion, in the midst of the
current crisis in the Caucasus, Washington professes
concern that Russia might resume military and
intelligence cooperation with Cuba at a level not
remotely approaching US-Georgia relations, and not a
further step towards a significant security threat.
Missile defense too is presented here as benign, though
leading US strategic analysts have explained why
Russian planners must regard the systems and their
chosen location as the basis for a potential threat to
the Russian deterrent, hence in effect a first-strike
weapon. The Russian invasion of Georgia was used as a
pretext to conclude the agreement to place these
systems in Poland , thus "bolstering an argument made
repeatedly by Moscow and rejected by Washington : that
the true target of the system is Russia ," AP
commentator Desmond Butler observed.
Matlock is not alone in regarding Kosovo as an
important factor. "Recognition of South Ossetia 's and
Abkhazia's independence was justified on the principle
of a mistreated minority's right to secession - the
principle Bush had established for Kosovo," the Boston
Globe editors comment.
But there are crucial differences. Strobe Talbott
recognizes that "there's a degree of payback for what
the U.S. and NATO did in Kosovo nine years ago," but
insists that the "analogy is utterly and profoundly
false." No one is a better position to know why it is
profoundly false, and he has lucidly explained the
reasons, in his preface to a book on NATO's bombing of
Serbia by his associate John Norris. Talbott writes
that those who want to know "how events looked and felt
at the time to those of us who were involved" in the
war should turn to Norris's well-informed account.
Norris concludes that "it was Yugoslavia 's resistance
to the broader trends of political and economic reform
- not the plight of Kosovar Albanians - that best explains NATO's war."
That the motive for the NATO bombing could not have
been "the plight of Kosovar Albanians" was already
clear from the rich Western documentary record
revealing that the atrocities were, overwhelmingly, the
anticipated consequence of the bombing, not its cause.
But even before the record was released, it should have
been evident to all but the most fervent loyalists that
humanitarian concern could hardly have motivated the US
and Britain , which at the same time were lending
decisive support to atrocities well beyond what was
reported from Kosovo, with a background far more
horrendous than anything that had happened in the
Balkans. But these are mere facts, hence of no moment
to Orwell's "nationalists" - in this case, most of the
Western intellectual community, who had made an
enormous investment in self-aggrandizement and
prevarication about the "noble phase" of US foreign
policy and its "saintly glow" as the millennium
approached its end, with the bombing of Serbia as the jewel in the crown.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to hear from the
highest level that the real reason for the bombing was
that Serbia was a lone holdout in Europe to the
political and economic programs of the Clinton
administration and its allies, though it will be a long
time before such annoyances are allowed to enter the canon.
There are of course other differences between Kosovo
and the regions of Georgia that call for independence
or union with Russia . Thus Russia is not known to have
a huge military base there named after a hero of the
invasion of Afghanistan , comparable to Camp Bondsteel
in Kosovo, named after a Vietnam war hero and
presumably part of the vast US basing system aimed at
the Middle East energy-producing regions. And there are many other differences.
There is much talk about a "new cold war" instigated by
brutal Russian behavior in Georgia . One cannot fail to
be alarmed by signs of confrontation, among them new US
naval contingents in the Black Sea - the counterpart
would hardly be tolerated in the Caribbean . Efforts to
expand NATO to Ukraine , now contemplated, could become extremely hazardous.
Nonetheless, a new cold war seems unlikely. To evaluate
the prospect, we should begin with clarity about the
old cold war. Fevered rhetoric aside, in practice the
cold war was a tacit compact in which each of the
contestants was largely free to resort to violence and
subversion to control its own domains: for Russia , its
Eastern neighbors; for the global superpower, most of
the world. Human society need not endure - and might
not survive - a resurrection of anything like that.
A sensible alternative is the Gorbachev vision rejected
by Clinton and undermined by Bush. Sane advice along
these lines has recently been given by former Israeli
Foreign Minister and historian Shlomo ben-Ami, writing
in the Beirut Daily Star: " Russia must seek genuine
strategic partnership with the US , and the latter must
understand that, when excluded and despised, Russia can
be a major global spoiler. Ignored and humiliated by
the US since the Cold War ended, Russia needs
integration into a new global order that respects its
interests as a resurgent power, not an anti-Western
strategy of confrontation."
Noam Chomsky's most recent book is Failed States: the
Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.