Saturday, 16 August 2008

After the USSR

I’m not a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan. I’ve dipped in at times in the past, but with little consistency. In the last few days however he’s really got my attention, and for all the wrong reasons.

On the 12th he wrote “The US has no rational basis to be as committed to Georgia as Russia is; and has very little moral standing to protest an invasion of a sovereign country.”

This would be in the first part an argument for accepting the notion of spheres of influence, of saying faraway fellow humans are less our fellows than our near neighbours, a Saul Steinbergian view of the world, a condemnation of faraway small nations to live as serfs in a system of international feudalism. 

The second part is an argument that was familiar to the cartoonist David Low when he satirised the appeasers of the 1930s. It’s an argument which in this case also implies a grotesque distortion of fact, but I’ll come back to that distortion, as Andrew Sullivan did.
A few hours later Andrew Sullivan clarified with “I was a little too mad at Bush to express adequate sympathy for the plight of the Georgians at first,” and went on to elaborate on his reasons for seeing Russia’s invasion of Georgia through the lens of Iraq. Specifically he saw it in a context of US abuse of prisoners in Iraq, the question of justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the question of UN authority for the invasion of Iraq. He concluded:
We can argue over the analogies. Yes, Iraq was a wicked dictatorship, and Georgia is a nascent democracy. Yes, the US is not Russia in terms of democratic norms. But actions and context are important. Iraq is thousands of miles away from the US; Georgia is on Russia's doorstep. The US invaded without the critical second UN resolution, putting the US outside the kind of international legitimacy in a way not totally unlike Russia. There is no American population in Iraq; there is a sizable Russian population in Georgia. Russia is recovering from one of the most precipitous declines in power in world history; the US stood athwart the globe in 2003 with no serious competitors. The Russian intervention has not toppled the Georgian government and has been halted after a few days. The American intervention in Iraq is now in its fifth year, with the administration doing all it can to stay longer.

The point here is not that the invasions are obviously morally equivalent. The point is that the line between American actions in the world and Russia's are no longer as stark as they once were. Once you trash the international system, declare yourself above the law and even the most basic of international conventions against war crimes, you have forfeited the kind of moral authority that the US once had. Bush and his cronies speak as if none of this has happened. Their rigid, absolutist denial even of the bleeding obvious allows them to preach to the world about international norms that, when they would have constrained American actions, were derided as quaint and irrelevant. You really cannot have it both ways.

Americans - and Georgians - are now living with the consequences. And I'm angry about it.
On prisoner abuses, to argue that Georgia should be denied solidarity because of crimes by US personnel at Abu Ghraib (or even because of White House sanctioned crimes by CIA personnel elsewhere) is a twisted piece of political narcissism. How are human rights in Iraq served by the denial of human rights in Georgia?

On comparing justifications for invasion, his own words above on the differences between pre-invasion Iraq and today’s Georgia show this to be a grotesque distraction.

On the issue of UN authority, Saddam Hussein was in breach of a very long series of UN resolutions. This is not the case with Georgia. While the word ‘illegal’ is synonymous in many people’s minds with the invasion of Iraq, just saying it over and over again doesn’t make it so

Of course one of the key obstacles to the US and UK getting a second resolution before invading Iraq, the necessity or otherwise of which is the centre of all arguments about legality, one of those key obstacles was Putin. Another important obstacle was Germany’s then leader Gerhard Schröder, who on leaving office went straight on to Gazprom... pipelines again. When it comes to the workings of the UN Security Council, international law looks like the law of the jungle.

On the part in the excerpt above about the relative strength of the US compared to Russia, how is this a factor in judging Russia’s actions? Surely Mr Sullivan is not one of those immature thinkers who equate weakness with virtue?

As for the part about Russian action being “halted after a few days”, it’s now four days since Andrew Sullivan wrote those words, four days of Russian troops continuing to expand their operations in areas of Georgia beyond the enclaves, days of looting, pillaging, and broken promises. And they’re still not leaving.

If Andrew Sullivan wants to make a proper comparison of the actions of Bush with the actions of Putin, he should compare Iraq to Chechnya. Compare the way those wars were fought. Compare the degree of legal accountability. Compare the outcome. And then consider what is at stake for Georgia.

On the 13th Andrew Sullivan wrote “Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. You'd think conservatives would understand this distinction. There is a difference between totalitarian states seeking world expansion and authoritarian petro-states in demographic collapse bullying neighboring states because of perceived humiliations,” and on the 14th he wrote “Russia is not a global expansionist power any more...”

How is what Russia is doing in Georgia not expansionist? And how big does a power have to be to be called global? And since when is ‘global’ a test of whether a country can present a serious threat? Certainly, Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, but it is built with the remains of the former Soviet Union, and led by people who are proud of their Soviet past.

Here’s the BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall on Soviet Roots to Georgian Conflict.

Here is an excellent BBC World Service documentary from earlier in the year, After the KGB, and an accompanying article.

On the 15th Andrew Sullivan linked approvingly to a piece by Matthew Yglesias, Overhyping Georgia:
The reality is that Russia has no actual ability to move from Tblisi to Kiev. Georgia is tiny, poor, and geographically located so as to make it difficult for the West to provide it with any practical support. Ukraine has 10 times Georgia's population, 20 times its economic output, and extensive land borders with countries firmly in the Western orbit. The practical impossibility of conquering Ukraine, not American threats, is what will keep the Russians out of Kiev.
This Andrew Sullivan characterised as ‘sanity’. It ignores that Russia’s primary interest in Ukraine is, according to Putin himself, the Crimea, not the entirety of Ukraine. Though there might be other ways than invasion of playing for that too. But don’t worry, Andrew thinks it won’t happen, Andrew who thought the Russians were done in Georgia four days ago.

Enough is too much. I’m in severe need of a break from the wisdom of Mr Sullivan.

UPDATE 17 AUGUST: When is a withdrawal not a withdrawal? When Russia replaces soldiers with ‘peacekeepers’.

ALSO: Ukraine’s President Yushchenko doesn’t share Andrew’s confidence:
He said the situation was unprecedented and showed that his country could only ensure its national sovereignty through collective security. Only that, he said, “could prevent any actions like those which occurred on 7-8 August at first in South Ossetia, and then in other regions of Georgia”.
Of course having been subjected to dioxin poisoning by his enemies might be affecting his judgement, making it hard for him to fully appreciate the wisdom of Sullivan.

AND FINALLY: Matthew Yglesias, the man Andrew turns to for ‘sanity’ on Ukraine, doesn’t even seem to know what country the Crimea is in, though Putin would no doubt agree with this post which says “Russian soil”. Typing error or thinking error? The post in full:
Farley on NATO
Robert Farley
makes a lot of sense on the past and future of NATO expansion. As he says, we have no reason to apologize for past NATO expansion, but simply because past expansions have been beneficial doesn’t mean that “NATO expansion” as such is a good thing that needs to be pressed forward. A point I would add is that there’s a difference between extending security guarantees so as to protect countries from Russian coercion and extending security guarantees in order to encourage countries to engage in risky anti-Russian behaviors. There was no sign that Hungary or the Czech Republic ever had any desire to actually pick a fight with Russia the way Georgia did (and has) or that Ukraine with its messy situation including actual Russian military bases on Russian soil plausibly might in the future.
That’s right, Matthew Yglesias thinks Georgia desired this fight. And he thinks Ukraine might desire a fight with Russia in the future. Hopeless.

Another post on Yglesias here.

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