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Today America’s media continues its love affair with a political star who has already faded from the stage, and fills out the balance of its airtime with stories from the Olympics in Beijing. But behind this classic display of media distraction, a new, colder and more threatening world is being born. A resurgent Russia flexes its military might over a former vassal state, now independent and aligned with the United States. Georgia is Russia’s whipping boy. Georgia has been Vladimir Putin’s favorite target for some time now, it was an obvious choice. Georgians have been assertive in their hostility to Russian hegemony and acerbic in their comments about Putin personally.
Four and a half years after the Rose Revolution, the Georgians have constructed what may be the most vibrant democracy on former Soviet soil. Their economy has been modestly but surprisingly successful. They have steered a sharp Westward course, pushing for NATO membership and aligning themselves with America even in its more unpopular undertakings, such as the war in Iraq. For Georgians, the choice was simple. America stood for the ideals of an open society and a free market. It offered the promise of transformation. And America was the paramount military power on earth, a power they could depend upon. But Georgia’s confidence in America, and specifically the Bush Administration, may well prove tragically misplaced.
In 2000, I visited the central Georgian city of Gori, now under assault by a column of Russian tanks and being subjected to Russian aerial bombardment. Through much of its history, Georgia was divided between two kingdoms, one on the Black Sea and the other in the interior. Gori stood at their joining point, the nation’s historic heart. I went to Gori with my young friend, the Georgian minister of justice, and on the drive out from Tbilisi, we discussed his understanding of the challenges faced by his country. Russia, in his view, presented some positive examples and some threats. He was impressed with the effort of a new Russian government to wrestle the country back from the oligarchs, to stabilize the tax revenue, restore central control over the provinces seeking autonomy, and to put the Russian government back on its feet. But he was suspicious about the new Russian leader’s commitment to democracy and his pursuit of jingoistic policies to whip up public support. My young friend, Misha Saakashvili, is now the besieged president of Georgia, and the new Russian leader we were discussing was Vladimir Putin.
After riding the Rose Revolution to power, Saakashvili adopted a set of strategies that reflected a careful study of Putin’s first thousand days. Oligarchs were put under the microscope, forced to pay taxes, and had their wings clipped. The nation’s empty treasury was slowly filled. The door was opened for entrepreneurship, and foreign investment began to flow into the country. Saakashvili also adopted a firm hand with respect to the petty enclaves that did a dance around the authority of the central government, acting quickly to reincorporate Adjaria. But there are important differences between Saakashvili and Putin, and they can be reduced to this: Misha is committed to democracy and an open society; Putin, betraying his KGB roots, never has been.
Last summer, I gave a speech in Tbilisi looking into the near-term future. What would come of relations between the United States and Russia? I predicted a cold snap. The United States and the Europeans would support the aspirations of Kosovo for independence, and Russia would retaliate. Georgia would be the immediate target, and the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be the vehicle. If the Americans could wrest Kosovo from Serbia, so reasoned Putin’s advisors, then we can take the Georgian enclaves from Tbilisi. Over the last half year, Moscow has carefully mustered a large military force in the North Caucasus, waiting for the right moment to strike. This week, as the world’s attention came to focus on Beijing, and the Government in Tbilisi–in a costly miscalculation–sought to reassert its control over South Ossetia–Putin saw his moment.
When I spoke in Tbilisi last summer, a perplexed young Georgian came up and asked me, “But what about NATO? With America’s support, Georgia will become a member of NATO. Won’t that make a difference?” The Bush Administration was then pushing the idea of NATO membership for the Georgians and its support gave them a good deal of confidence. But I explained why it wouldn’t happen. The NATO membership issue would be decided by the NATO members as a whole, and at present American prestige and support within its most important alliance system was at a historic low point. U.S. support for Georgian membership would count for very little.
The Georgian leadership, and indeed a whole generation of Georgians, tethered their hopes to George W. Bush and the hollow promises of his administration. Now at the moment of truth, Bush will almost certainly let them down. He has overextended America’s military presence around the world, whittling down America’s uniformed professional military just as he has undertaken two simultaneous wars. The Pentagon is telling Bush that he has stretched the nation’s fighting force perilously close to the breaking point. A conflict involving a major military power, like Russia, is beyond the realm of contemplation. Vice President Cheney, whose bellicose rhetoric has done much to provoke the problems now bubbling in the Caucasus, says that the Russian acts of aggression in Georgia “must not go unanswered.” But thanks to the serial strategic misadventures that make up Bush-Cheney foreign policy, there is little prospect of Russia’s actions being answered by a flex of military muscle of the United States or of NATO. Putin’s calculation is that an America bogged down in two conflicts in the Middle East will let him give the Georgians a whipping. Putin is probably right.
The world now enters a new phase. Russia has reasserted itself as a military power which will not tolerate backtalk and independence on the territory of its old imperium. The foreign policy and national security calculus of the United States and of Europe have just gotten much more complicated. Enjoy the Olympics.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:
An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”