| Ander Nieuws week 34 / nieuwe oorlog 2008 |
Moscow has to take some of the blame. But it is the west's policy of liberal interventionism that has fuelled war in Georgia
August 13, 2008
One thing is for sure. This week's operation in Georgia has displayed the failure of the west's policy of belligerence towards Vladimir Putin's Russia. The policy was meant to weaken Russia, and has strengthened it. The policy was meant to humiliate Russia with Nato encirclement, and has merely fed its neo-imperialism. The policy was meant to show that Russia "understands only firmness" and instead has shown the west as a bunch of tough-talking windbags.
Georgia, a supposed western ally and applicant to Nato, has been treated by Russia to a brutal lesson in power politics. The west has lost all leverage and can do nothing. Seldom was a policy so crashingly stupid.
Putin would die laughing if he read this week's American newspapers. The president, George Bush, declared the Russian invasion of Georgia "disproportionate and unacceptable". This is taken as a put-down to the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who declared the invasion "will not go unanswered", apparently something quite different. Bush says that great powers should not go about "toppling governments in the 21st century", as if he had never done such a thing. Cheney says that the invasion has "damaged Russia's standing in the world", as if Cheney gave a damn. The lobby for sanctions against Russia is reduced to threatening to boycott the winter Olympics. Big deal.
Every student of the Caucasus has known since the fall of the Soviet empire that this part of the world was an explosion waiting to happen. The crisscrossing fault lines of ethnicity, religion and nationalism, fuelled by gas and oil, would not long survive the removal of the Red Army and communist discipline. There were too many old scores to settle, too much territory in dispute and too much wealth at stake - rivalries brilliantly portrayed in Kurban Said's classic novel of Edwardian Azerbaijan, Ali & Nino.
In every crisis the west craves goodies and baddies. The media finds it impossible to report a modern conflict without taking sides. In Yugoslavia, where a similar clash of separatist minorities occurred in the 1990s, coverage was so biased that Kosovo is still "plucky little" and the Serbs can still do no right.
In South Ossetia both sides appear to have committed appalling atrocities, and can thus generate a sense of outrage in front of whatever camera is pointed at them. Georgia's government claimed the right to assert military control over its two dissident provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even if they were openly in league with Russia. Equally, Russia felt justified in stopping the consequent evictions and killings of its nationals in these provinces, in which it had a humanitarian locus as "peacekeeper".
The difficulty is that entitlement and good sense are rarely in accord. Georgia may have been entitled to act, but was clearly unwise to do so. Russia may have been entitled to aid its people against an oppressor, but that is different from unleashing its notoriously inept and ruthless army, let alone bombing Georgia's capital and demanding a change in its government.
What is clear is that the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is a poor advertisement for a Columbia education. He thought he could reoccupy South Ossetia and call Russia's bluff while Putin was away at the Olympics. He found it was not bluff. Putin was waiting for just such an invitation to humiliate a man he loathes, and to deter any other Russian border state from applying to join Nato, an organisation Russia had itself sought to join until it was rudely rebuffed.
Saakashvili thought he could call on the support of his neoconservative allies in Washington. Tbilisi is one of the few world cities in which Bush's picture is a pin-up and where an avenue is named after him. It turned out that such "support" was mere words. America is otherwise engaged in wars that bear a marked resemblance to those waged by Putin. It defended the Kurdish enclaves against Saddam Hussein. It sought regime change in Serbia and Afghanistan. As Putin's troops in South Ossetia were staging a passable imitation of the US 101st Airborne entering Iraq, Bush was studiously watching beach volleyball in Beijing.
The truth is that the world has no conceptual framework for adjudicating, let alone resolving, these timeless border conflicts. Where poverty is rife, it takes only a clan war and a ready supply of guns for hostilities to break out. The only question is how to stop them escalating.
Once such conflicts could be quarantined by the United Nations' requirement to respect national sovereignty. That has been shot to pieces by the liberal interventionism of George Bush and Tony Blair. The result has reinvigorated separatist movements across the world. Small-statism is not an evil in itself: witness its quadrennial festival at the Olympics. But the process of achieving it is usually bitter and bloody.
The west's eagerness to intervene in favour of partition, manifest in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Sudan, is more than meddling. It encouraged every oppressed people and province on earth to be "the mouse that roared", to think it could ensnare a great power in its cause.
The parallels are glaring. If we backed Kosovo against the Serbs, why not back South Ossetia against the Georgians? But if we backed the Kurds against the Iraqis, why not the Georgians against Russia? Indeed, had Nato admitted Georgia to full membership, there is no knowing what Caucasian horror might have ensued from the resulting treaty obligation. Decisions which in Washington and London may seem casual gestures of ideological solidarity can mean peace and war on the ground.
I retain an archaic belief that the old UN principle of non-interference, coupled with a realpolitik acceptance of "great power" spheres of influence, is still a roughly stable basis for international relations. It may on occasions be qualified by soft-power diplomacy and humanitarian relief. It may demand an abstinence from kneejerk gestures in favour of leaving things to sort themselves out (as in Zimbabwe). But liberal interventionism, especially when it leads to military and economic aggression, means one costly adventure after another - and usually failure.
The west has done everything to isolate Putin, as he rides the tiger of Russian emergence from everlasting dictatorship. This has encouraged him to care not a fig for world opinion. Equally the west has encouraged Saakashvili to taunt Putin beyond endurance. The policy has led to war. If ever there were a place just to leave alone, it is surely the Caucasus.
� Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
| Ander Nieuws week 34 / nieuwe oorlog 2008 |