The remarks by Zalmay Khalilzad, America's UN
ambassador, denouncing Russian aggression against that paragon of democratic
virtue, the Republic of Georgia, are almost too funny to quote. U.S. government
hypocrisy obviously is not new, but Washington's inconsistency on this occasion
is more spectacular than usual.
Proving yet again that history has not ended, last week Georgia launched a
blitzkrieg against the autonomous territory of South Ossetia in an attempt
to coerce its inhabitants back under Tbilisi's control. In
a response foreseen by everyone except, apparently, Georgia's narcissistic
president, Mikheil Saakashvili, Russia responded with overwhelming military
force, pushing back the Georgian troops – who had killed and destroyed freely
when attacking South Ossetia – and seizing parts of Georgia. Tbilisi essentially
sued for peace, and a cease-fire has been agreed to.
This is a fight in
which the U.S. has no stake. Georgia was part of the Soviet Union for 70
years. Not once did Washington worry about the strategic implications of Soviet
control of the Caucasus. It need not worry about Russian influence in the Caucasus
today. Admittedly, the Bush administration had dreams of dominating Russia
along its borders through NATO, just as the administration hopes to continue
dominating China along its borders, through alliances with Japan and South
Korea, an informal compact with Taiwan, and U.S. naval superiority. But Washington's
imperial pretensions are not the same as America's genuine, let alone vital,
If the U.S. could survive, even prosper, while the Soviet Union controlled
the same piece of real estate, the U.S. can survive, even prosper, while Russia
influences Georgia. The fact that President George W. Bush, would-be president
John McCain, and their neocon camp followers want Washington to run the world
doesn't justify forcing the American people to take the risk and waste the
money attempting to do so.
Nevertheless, the U.S. government found itself, rather like Captain Renault
in Casablanca, to be shocked, shocked at the notion that a major power
might take military action against a small neighbor in violation of international
law to advance its perceived national interests. At a fractious United Nations
session last weekend, Ambassador Khalilzad represented a shocked America desperately
attempting to save the world from militarism, aggression, and war.
He complained of Russian "aggression," especially the fact that
"there has been an intensification of Russian military activity in the
South Ossetian region" and that "Military operations against Georgian
forces in the conflict zone have escalated dramatically." Further, "Russia
has been attacking villages and cities elsewhere in Georgia, including threatening
the Zug Didi region and air attacks against Tbilisi's airport. Russian military
attacks have also destroyed critical Georgian infrastructure, including seaports,
airports, and other facilities."
Khalilzad pointed to the conflict's dire consequences: "[T]he result
of this escalation against a sovereign state that has not posed direct threat
to Russia, has increased casualties and humanitarian suffering for the people
of Georgia, including in South Ossetia and Abkhazia." But Moscow was "intransigent"
and refused "to stop the violence" even though Georgia "offered
a cease-fire and restoration of the status quo." Moreover, "Russia
continues to resist efforts by the international community to mediate this
Finally, there was the issue of national sovereignty. Explained Khalilzad,
"[W]e must condemn the Russian military assault in [sic] the sovereign
state of Georgia, the violation of the countries [sic] sovereignty and territorial
integrity including the targeting of civilians and the campaign of terror against
the Georgian population. Similarly, we need to condemn the destruction of Georgian
infrastructure and violations of the country's sovereignty and territorial
integrity." Ambassador Khalilzad asked, "Was Russia's objective regime
change in Georgia, the overthrow of the democratically elected government of
that country?" After all, he contended, the bad old days of tossing out
governments of other nations were over.
Khalilzad's remarks have been echoed by others. For instance, the White House
expressed its support for Georgia's "territorial integrity." Vice
President Richard Cheney denounced "this threat to Georgia's sovereignty
and territorial integrity." President George W. Bush said that Moscow's
tactics were "unacceptable in the 21st century." Administration officials
pointed to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan
as Soviet precedents for Russia's actions.
Bill Clinton's old political consultant Dick Morris claimed that Russia's
attack on Georgia was akin to Adolf Hitler's campaign to acquire the Sudetenland
in Czechoslovakia. James Robbins of the American Foreign Policy Council also
pointed to Nazi Germany's use of ethnic Germans as a justification for its
Khalilzad's remarks, so full of moral outrage and personal umbrage, are almost
a perfect parody of statesmanship, representing what a hypocritical, self-important,
morally blind, arrogant, even hubristic, government would say when another
power follows its example. My God! Can you imagine! Aggression! Attacks on
civilians! Humanitarian suffering! Violations of national sovereignty! Regime
change! No one does that anymore.
Except the U.S., of course.
Let's see. How far back should we go? There was the CIA-supported coup against
Iran's (elected) government in 1953 that brought the shah to power. In 1963
Washington greenlighted the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh
Diem, which resulted in his execution. Of course, in those days, there were
lots of back-room plots – some of which worked, some of which didn't – against
lots of nations. But one effort continues to this day: For nearly a half century
Washington has been attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro.
In the 1980s the Reagan administration funded and armed a guerrilla force
in an attempt to oust the Nicaraguan government. In 1983 the U.S. invaded Grenada
to remove a government viewed as inimical to American interests. Six years
later the U.S. invaded Panama to arrest its head of state. In Somalia in 1993
Washington decided to arrest local warlords – the de facto government – whom
In 1994 the U.S. not only ousted the existing Haitian government, but put
a new regime in its place. A decade later the U.S. intervened to oust the same
(elected) leader. In 1999 the U.S. and NATO launched a war against Serbia to
give autonomy, and ultimately independence, to the territory of Kosovo, supporting
a violent secessionist movement which then ethnically cleansed hundreds of
thousands of Serbs. The U.S. backed an unsuccessful coup in 2002 against Venezuela's
(elected) President Hugo Chavez.
That same year President George W. Bush simultaneously targeted Iraq, Iran,
and North Korea for regime change, terming them members of the "Axis of
Evil." A year later he invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein. Even now,
the administration is attempting to browbeat the (elected) government in Baghdad
to accept scores of bases and a long-term troop presence for use against other
countries in the region. Moreover, Washington has spent freely – directly,
through "foreign aid," as well as indirectly, through subsidies to
nominally independent institutes and other NGOs – to replace existing regimes
with pro-American governments in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.
My goodness, who would have imagined a big power using its military to violate
the sovereignty of other nations and cause civilian casualties, just to advance
its own interests? How could a government consider attempting to oust a smaller
country's ruling regime? It's just not done anymore. Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov asserted that "it is not a part of our political culture
or foreign policy to topple anyone or put someone on a throne." But it
is part of America's political culture and foreign policy to do so. The Russians
just don't understand the rules.
Washington's hypocrisy is particularly glaring when one considers the 1999
NATO attack on Serbia. It was, indisputably, a war of aggression against a
nation that had done nothing against America or the Europeans. There had been
no threats, let alone hostile acts. Rather, Serbia was engaged in the traditional,
though brutal, business of suppressing an armed insurgency. Ask Great Britain
about the Irish. Ask the Spanish about the Basques. Ask Turkey about the Kurds.
Ask the Americans about the Confederacy.
However, outraged by the spectacle of some 2,000 deaths over the preceding
year or two, the Western alliance acted – without the sanction of international
law, let alone the approval of the United Nations – to violate Serbia's "sovereignty
and territorial integrity," in Khalilzad's words. Not only did the U.S.
(which was responsible for most of the military action) bomb Serbian military
forces in Kosovo, but it also attacked civilian targets and destroyed civilian
infrastructure in Serbia, well outside of the nominal combat zone. The assaults
cost the lives of thousands (even NATO admits 1,500) of noncombatants in Kosovo
and Serbia, while the Serbian authorities retaliated by driving out hundreds
of thousands of ethnic Albanians, causing enormous "humanitarian suffering,"
as Khalilzad put it.
The allies rejected any idea of a compromise, since they viewed the status
quo as unacceptable. They were not interested in outside (meaning Russian)
mediation to end the conflict until they feared that Belgrade's refusal to
surrender might force them to initiate a ground war. Only then was some compromise
acceptable. Earlier this year the U.S. and the Europeans acted to formally
amputate Kosovo from Serbia, seizing roughly 15 percent of that nation's territory,
with nary a thought about the consequences for the tens of thousands of ethnic
Serbs still living in Kosovo.
The Russians responded to allied support for Kosovo's independence by observing
that the precedent had wide applications, including in the Caucasus. Russia's
UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin countered Khalilzad, observing, "This statement,
ambassador, is completely unacceptable, particularly from the lips of the permanent
representative of a country whose actions we are aware of, including with regard
to the civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan and Serbia." Washington
set the example, several times over.
So the Bush administration and its neocon Greek chorus now is filled with
moral outrage because Russia intervened in a hostile bordering state that is
carrying out a violent campaign against secessionists who have strong ties
with Russia. Can anyone take Washington's supposed concerns seriously?
Obviously, one can argue about the legitimacy of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian
campaigns for self-determination, but they go back decades, if not centuries,
and are far more than Russian creations. There's no doubt that Moscow has cheerfully
used these controversies as an opportunity to apply brutal, deadly force to
humble an obnoxious opponent, but Georgia is no international innocent.
The country is an authoritarian democracy, with demagogic President Saakashvili
playing the nationalist card to win political support and abusing his power
to crack down on opposition media and politicians. He sent troops to Afghanistan
and Iraq to win American support, not to selflessly battle the global menace
of "Islamofascist" terrorism.
Moreover, his attack on South Ossetia ended up, whether planned that way or
not, as an attack on civilians. Although one should be wary of Russian claims
of 1,400 South Ossetian civilians killed in the initial Georgian assault on
the city of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital – after all, the U.S. government
shamelessly circulated fake atrocity stories during both the first Gulf War
and the attack on Serbia – using artillery and rocket launchers against urban
areas was no surgical strike. Tens of thousands of South Ossetians have become
refugees as well. The gratitude of South Ossetians toward Moscow appears genuine
– and, frankly, well-founded.
The war is still bad for the same reason that all wars are bad: they visit
death and destruction upon the innocent and guilty alike, and usually set in
motion unpredictable forces that often generate even more death and destruction,
sometimes years down the line. But the war may have a salutary effect if it
convinces the West that it can no longer bulldoze Russia, ignoring Moscow's
legitimate security and other interests.
Expanding NATO up to Russia's borders, working to accomplish regime change
in former constituent parts of the Soviet Union, and treating Moscow as of
no account when changing borders in the Balkans might not be the conscious
policy of encirclement as seen from Russia, but it's easy to understand why
Moscow views America's policies with suspicion. In any case, these were not
wise tactics to use to win Russia's assistance in, say, confronting Iran. The
days of America as the unipower, global colossus, and master of the universe
are over. It turns out there are consequences to actions, and the U.S. – as
well as Georgia – is paying the price for having forgotten that reality.
Is the war in the Caucasus tragic? Certainly. Should the U.S. encourage peaceful
resolutions of the Russia-Georgia-South Ossetia conflicts? Surely. Should Washington
promote the fantasy that Georgia is a democratic exemplar upholding its natural
right to rule South Ossetia while holding off a dangerous revanchist Russia?
No. And should U.S. government officials pretend that Moscow is the only aggressive,
threatening, self-interested actor on the international stage? Not on your
life. It's time for Washington's interventionist elite to take a good, hard
look in the mirror.