The Russia/Georgia conflict and the tactics of 2002

Reason's Cathy Young and other fanatical supporters of Georgia use character smears and "pro-Putin" insults to try to stifle debate.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published October 25, 2008 10:10AM (EDT)

(updated below)

Over at Reason Magazine, in an article by Contributing Editor Cathy Young, I stand accused of harboring "sympathy for Russia"; tolerance of, and perhaps even support for, Putin's internal repression and oligarchical rule; and overarching anti-Americanism, or -- as she puts it -- overriding allegiance to "the cause of sticking a finger in America's eye."  My transgression?  This post of last week, in which I documented and objected to the misleading, one-sided propaganda from our political and media establishment depicting Georgia as the sweet, plucky, innocent, freedom-loving victim of Russia's "unprovoked" attack last August.

It seems Young has stumbled into a time machine and catapulted herself back to 2002 -- that glorious era when those who disputed the Government's scary warnings about the Grave Iraqi Menace were, for that reason alone, smeared as -- to use the Right's favorite term -- "objectively pro-Saddam," and, similarly, those who opposed the invasion of Iraq were deemed America-hating traitors:  "not anti-war, just on the other side."  Young then travels further back in time, circa 1954, to warn that my pro-Russia and Putin-apologist sentiments are found in "many quarters of the American left -- from Greenwald to Noam Chomsky to Alexander Cockburn and Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation (not to mention numerous commenters at sites like and The Huffington Post)" -- all part of a Russia-loving cabal similar to those "Cold War-era leftists [who] pleaded for a more understanding view of the Soviet Union."

And thus, in attempting to refute my point as "blatantly false," Young actually proves it perfectly:   the very same manipulative, debate-suppressive tactics used in 2002-2003 to propagandize the citizenry about the Grave Threat from Saddam are now being deployed (often by the same people and with the same motives) to impose false orthodoxies about Georgia and Russia, whereby those who refuse to ingest these deceitful Manichean fairy tales about that war -- or who, more unthinkably still, oppose the ill-conceived, dangerous plan to turn Georgia into a U.S. protectorate through NATO membership and other entanglements -- are smeared as Putin apologists and guilty of sympathizing with, acquiescing to, and even supporting Russian tyranny.  Ironically, one must embrace and recite false propaganda from the American government/media establishment about Russia/Georgia, or else one is guilty of Putin-style authoritarianism.

* * * * *

In order to argue that there is an open, vibrant debate in the U.S. about Georgia, Young cites a few isolated snippets from American newspaper articles which dispute the claim that Russia's attack was "unprovoked."  But that contradicts nothing that I wrote.  To the contrary, I explicitly documented that there are exceptions where the truth about the Russia-Georgia War is aired, and even pointed (and linked) to this Colin Powell appearance on Meet the Press (where Powell blamed Georgia for provoking the war and said that "the match that started the conflagration was from the Georgian side"), and this New York Times article, documenting the severe anti-democratic and media-repressive practices of the Georgian government.  But the fact that one can use Google to find a few instances of dissent no more proves that there is open and honest debate on this issue than the existence of a few scattered 2002 articles objecting to Iraqi WMD claims proves that there was healthy, permissive pre-Iraq-war debate in this country.

To dispute my claim that a false orthodoxy about Georgia has now arisen, Young argues that the presidential debate transcripts which I cited do not contain the word "unprovoked."  But that is a petty, irrelevant semantic point, as demonstrated by her acknowledgment that McCain, in the first debate, heaped all blame on Russia and none on Georgia (after which Obama said:  "I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues"); McCain, in the second debate, accused Russia of "naked aggression" and demanded full-scale support for Georgia (after which Obama said:  "for the most part I agree with Sen. McCain on many of the steps that have to be taken" but went on to argue for even more assistance and support for Georgia than McCain advocated); and Sarah Palin, in her ABC News interview with Charlie Gibson, expressly alleged -- twice -- that Russia's attack on Georgia was "unprovoked" and declared:  "we will be committed to Georgia."

Every time the major party candidates now mention Russia/Georgia -- including in the debates -- there is full, unequivocal agreement on everything, all premised on the comic-book, Good v. Evil narrative that Georgia is our stalwart democratic ally which, through no fault of their own, was victimized by an expansionist, war-seeking Russia, and we owe them our full protection and unwavering support.  There is never a word of criticism toward Georgia or an acknowledgment of the role it played in provoking the conflict, in starting the war.   That is the truth that cannot be spoken.

Ever since Obama was pilloried for the crime of issuing a mildly "even-handed" statement at the start of the war -- one which he was compelled quickly to rescind in favor of an uncritical defense of Georgia which heaped all blame on Russia -- the truth of what happened, of Georgia's role in provoking the war, has been forbidden to be uttered by mainstream politicians upon pain of being accused of "softness toward Russia" or harboring pro-Putin sympathies.

And that's the point:  it is now almost as forbidden in mainstream American political circles to criticize Georgia as it is to criticize Israel.  Georgia is the new, little neocon project -- armed by Israeli (and U.S.) industry, with its soldiers trained by Israel and, shortly before the attack on South Ossetia, by the U.S. -- and the same blind, uncritical allegiance which has long been demanded of American politicians towards Israel is now being applied to Georgia.  As but one example, here is Charles Krauthammer in his column this week, explaining why he is supporting John McCain:

Well, how has [Obama] fared on the only two significant foreign policy tests he has faced since he's been in the Senate? The first was the surge. Obama failed spectacularly. . . .

The second test was Georgia, to which Obama responded instinctively with evenhanded moral equivalence, urging restraint on both sides. McCain did not have to consult his advisers to instantly identify the aggressor.

In other words, McCain didn't bother to gather facts before reflexively casting the conflict in absolute moral terms by blaming Russia and defending Georgia, and Krauthammer considers that a good thing.  After an initial lapse into fact-based rationality, Obama quickly followed suit and has faithfully recited the approved script ever since, and any dissent -- and truth -- about the Russia/Georgia War has thus basically disappeared from mainstream political debate.

* * * * *

While the Russia/Georgia conflict (like most long-standing territorial disputes) is beset with many moral and factual ambiguities -- and those can be and should be openly debated -- there are some facts that are not in doubt and others that, though still inconclusive, are well-supported.  What is undeniably clear is that on August 7, as The New York Times documented, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his military to enter South Ossetia, and then:

In the field, there is evidence from an extensive set of witnesses that within 30 minutes of Mr. Saakashvili’s order, Georgia’s military 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.

According to The Financial Times, "the prevailing view [among Ossetian refugees] on the Russian side of the Caucasus mountains is that Georgia’s pro-western leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, tried to wipe out their breakaway enclave."  Despite that, it was, as the BBC amply documented, the United States which, from the beginning, aggressively -- and falsely -- propagandized about what was taking place:

The Bush administration appears to be trying to turn a failed military operation by Georgia into a successful diplomatic operation against Russia.

It is doing so by presenting the Russian actions as aggression and playing down the Georgian attack into South Ossetia on 7 August, which triggered the Russian operation.

Yet the evidence from South Ossetia about that attack indicates that it was extensive and damaging.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford has reported: "Many Ossetians I met both in Tskhinvali and in the main refugee camp in Russia are furious about what has happened to their city.

"They are very clear who they blame: Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sent troops to re-take control of this breakaway region" . . .

One problem for the Russians is that they have not yet learned how to play the media game. Their authoritarian government might never do so.

Most of the Western media are based in Georgia. The Russians were slow to give access from their side and this has helped them lose the propaganda war. . . .

[U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] has refused to condemn Georgia and barely acknowledged Russia's point that it had to protect its peacekeeping forces (a battalion-sized unit allowed in South Ossetia along with Georgian and North Ossetian and South Ossetian forces under a 1992 agreement).

As Georgetown Professor of International Affairs Charles King put it when I interviewed him in August, the war started when "the Georgians had become convinced that if they could do this kind of lightning strike, and succeed, they would create a situation on the ground that the Russians would have a very difficult time countering''; the Russians (though acting with motives that were far from pure) legitimately perceived a humanitarian crisis as a result of large numbers of South Ossetians fleeing across the Russian border to escape the Georgian attack; and thus, "it's very simplistic to see this as the Russian autocratic bear trying to snuff out this small beacon of democracy."

But that is the exact absolutist moral narrative that has exerted a stranglehold on our discourse.  Yet that set of claims is factually false, but it is this version that all of the major party candidates and virtually all of our media establishment now mindlessly endorse.   Ironically, and just as is true for Israel, there is -- as this NYT article from today documents -- far more debate taking place inside Georgia itself, and there is far more criticism from Georgians of their President's role in instigating the war, than American politicians are permitted to express.

Just as a matter of the most basic logic, one can find Government X repellent -- and even find its response to unwarranted provocations excessive and wrong -- and simultaneously object to being lied to about what Government X has done or is doing.  Skeptically questioning claims about Iraqi WMDs or opposing an invasion of that country didn't make one "pro-Saddam" or an apologist for Saddam's brutal tyranny and a fan of his rape rooms.  Identically, pointing out that government assertions about the Russia/Georgia war are false doesn't evince affection for Vladimir Putin or Russian authoritarianism. 

Those are propositions that aren't difficult to comprehend.  To the contrary, they're so self-evident that anyone with a functioning brain and the most minimal intellectual honesty would accept them, and would abstain from the sort of stale, transparent character smears which Cathy Young and many others like her are attempting to deploy -- yet again -- this time in order to stifle debate and impose a factually false orthodoxy about Russia and Georgia. 


UPDATE:  The American Conservative's Daniel Larison makes several other excellent points about this matter, including this:

Russophobes never seem to understand that Westerners who object to their distortions and misrepresentations are not apologizing for the Russian government, nor do they approve of Russia’s internal or external policies, but they do object to having our policy debate defined by propaganda and simplistic morality plays about ”democratically-elected governments” being set upon by ”revanchist” Russians. . . .

This obviously undermines the quality of foreign policy debate in this country, as even those who know better avoid speaking out against the absurd establishment policies (in this case, reflexive support for Georgia and its entry into NATO) so that they avoid being ostracized as defenders of foreign authoritarian governments. In the end, that is the purpose of the near-universal condemnation of “Russian aggression” by our political class–to force objections to the dangerous and misguided policies that helped to bring about the war in Georgia to the margins of the debate and to make open criticism of an irrationally close attachment to a north Caucasus state much more politically perilous for anyone in the government.

Larison's post should be read in its entirety.

Glenn Greenwald

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