Foreign Policy

Georgia On and Off Our Minds

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Mark Ames at the Nation thinks that the New York Times took an unwarrantedly kind view of the sterling qualities of Georgia's government and behavior in the recent Russia v. Georgia contretemps, and is now quietly backpedaling. Some excerpts:

….a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times slipped in a story that completely contradicted a narrative that it had been building up for two straight months, one that was leading America into another war–a so-called "New Cold War." The article exposed the awful authoritarian reality of Georgia's so-called democracy, painting a dark picture of President Mikhail Saakashvili's rule that repudiated the fairy tale that the Times and everyone else in the major media had been pushing ever since war broke out in South Ossetia in early August. That fairy tale went like this: Russia (evil) invaded Georgia (good) for no reason whatsoever except that Georgia was free. Putin hates freedom, and Saakashvili is the "democratically elected leader" of a "small, democratic country."

……..

The real question, then, is why the Times waited until this late to question its own position–why wait until the war was long off the front pages, to publish an article about what everyone with an ounce of journalistic curiousity already knew–that Saakashvili was about as much a democrat as he was a military genius?

The push in the West by outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post to get a new cold war on hinged on two major fallacies: (1) that Russia invaded Georgia first, totally unprovoked, because Georgia is a "democracy"; and (2), that Georgia is a "democracy."

It's as if the Times deliberately forgot what it already reported about Saakashvili last year, after he sent in his goon squads to crush opposition protests:

"I think that Misha tends toward the authoritarian," said Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer in the United States who taught Saakashvili when he was a student at Columbia Law School in the mid-1990s, later hired him at a law firm in New York and has remained friendly with him. "I would put it this way: there is a remarkable similarity between Misha and Putin, in terms of their attitudes about presidential prerogatives and authority," Horton said. Like Putin, he added, Saakashvili has marginalized Parliament and taken to belittling the opposition.

………..

Ever since I went down to South Ossetia to see the war for myself, I'd developed a kind of sick curiosity to see just how the Times and all the others were going to extricate themselves from the credibility-hole they'd dug. I had a feeling it was going to come, because Saakashvili was not only a blatant liar but an incredibly bad liar. I was in South Ossetia at the close of the war–I saw the destruction that the "freedom-loving" Georgians wreaked, and the bloated, rotting corpses on the streets of the province's capital city, Tskhinvali–so I was particularly interested in how long the sleazy tale of good vs. evil would last, and how the major media would squirm their way out of their biggest journalistic fiasco since the Iraqi-WMD blooper.

It's a long piece, but well-detailed, and worth studying for historians of how U.S. public opinion is shaped toward feeling bellicose about far-away conflicts with little to no effect on genuine American interests.

Matt Welch on John McCain's overreaction to the Georgia crisis. 

[Link via Rational Review.] 

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  1. everyone with an ounce of journalistic curiousity already knew–that Saakashvili was about as much a democrat as he was a military genius

    Ouch.

  2. Yeah reminds me how the antiwar left softpedals how bad Saddam Hussein was.

  3. I think Russia invading any nation is cause for concern. Getting too caught up in whether the invadee was on the side of the angels or not clouds the real issue, which is that Russia is willing to deal militarily with its former empire. Not good, and I think Russia is likely as full of crap about the causes of the war as Georgia is.

    Poland was essentially a military dictatorship (albeit one with some democratic elements left in from the republican days) when the Nazis invaded it. I’m not saying Russia-Georgia is at all a similar situation, but it goes to show that the victim isn’t always pure in these things.

  4. I find it hard to come to any kind of definitive conclusion in this conflict. For me, much, maybe too much(?) of my opinion rests on if it is true the South Ossetians were launching mortars into Georgia while be observed by “peacekeepers”. Is that really known? Does it matter? Are people waging a failed revolution bad? Are Burger King french fries better than McDonalds?

    Also, as a fan of Farscape…

  5. Matt Welch on John McCain’s overreaction to the Georgia crisis.

    Just a few more observations like that and Matt can write a book about McCain.

    DRINK!

    Oh yes, thanks for getting the “Find Your Russian Beauty” ads to come up, but I prefer the asian chicks that Jesse conjured in his ChiCom post earlier 🙂

  6. This isn’t about who was right, it’s about media bias, and the “major” media bias busting groups (NewsBusters and Media Matters) of the right and left pretty much ignored reality in favor of their preferred political scripts, from all I saw. Again.

  7. How the political media works:

    Republicans: it’s 100%! It’s 100%!

    Liberals: well, now, hold on. You’ve got a point, but there’s another side to the story. Let’s say it’s 50%.

    Republicans: Damn you, it’s 100% How dare you say it’s 0%?

    Liberals: Easy there, I didn’t say it was 0%, I said it was 50%. Can we agree on 60-40?

    Mainstream Media: there are two sides to every story. The Republicans say it’s 100%, the liberals say it’s 60%. Let’s be reasonable, and split the difference at 80%.

    Right-wing media: Damn that liberal MSM! It’s not 80%, like the liberals say, it’s 100%! Coward traitor subversive MUSLIM!

    Mainstream media: upon further review, we were clearly wrong to agree with the liberals on 80%. There are two sides to every story. It’s 90%.

  8. Geez, that was a crappily-written piece. The guy actually went to South Ossetia, and we got an entire paragraph about what he found (apparently not a whole lot except seeing some dead bodies). Then he ends with an entirely unrelated and uninteresting anecdote about taking final exams at Berkley (how appropriate). Same old Nation.

  9. Joe-

    Please, you are smart enough to recognize the false left/right paradigm. Why play into it?

  10. Getting too caught up in whether the invadee was on the side of the angels or not clouds the real issue, which is that Russia The US is willing to deal militarily with its former empire

    Fixed your post.

  11. libertymike,

    Because my comment was descriptive, not prescriptive, and our politics really do operate as a tension between the left and right the vast majority of the time.

  12. I think Russia invading any nation is cause for concern.

    Why?

    I don’t see how this conflict has any wide-reaching implications for non-eastern european affairs. I understand that the stories that come out of this make it easy to make Russia seem like a big, scary, bad guy (not surprising in the least). But Russia is a big, scary thing and Georgia is its forgeotten turd.

    I think what we learn of this conflict is that we should not have entagling alliances with small ex-Soviet bloc states that could easily be thrashed around by mother Russia.

  13. I’m sure the narrative is oversimplified, but here is another perspective from Michael Totten:

    http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/08/the-truth-about-1.php#comments

  14. That fairy tale went like this: Russia (evil) invaded Georgia (good) for no reason whatsoever except that Georgia was free.

    Nobody really fell for that silliness, did they? Nobody outside politics, anyway.

  15. Quick look at Totten’s site, and it seems clear that he will never do even a Times’-like apology because the concept is totally foreign to him.

  16. Pro Lib-

    What should be emphasized is our presence in Georgia along with that of the Israelis. That is a cause for concern.

  17. We haven’t really been doing our friends any favors lately, have we?

    We egged on the Georgians, just like we egged on the Israelis vis a vis Hezbollah.

  18. Nobody manages to write so descriptively, with so many wonderful photographs, there on the ground, yet still manages to misread everything, as Michael Totten.

    So, is Ames the War Nerd, or not?

  19. NO TO NATO EXPANSION!!

  20. It’s important to keep in mind the fact that the Russians have been pedling the line that Georgia was the aggressor, and that it committed atrocities against Ossetian civilians, a claim not backed up by Human Rights Watch. Though observers did see Georgian villiages in Ossetia had been burned down.

    Also, the Russian side was avidly adopted early on by European leftists, who for some reason think that Russia shares some sort of interest with them.

    So, it’s possible that this isn’t a matter of a “good vs. evil” narrative at the times breaking down, so much as the pro-Russian counter-narrative leaking in.

  21. Pro is right. Just because Georgia is not a good government doesn’t mean that Russia invading them is a good thing. Hell, the Kurds are back stabbing bastards who play both sides of the Iran Iraq war but that doesn’t mean it was okay for Saddam to gas them.

    Russia wants its ethnic minorities back. Ukraine and the Baltic States are next on the list. At some point they will go to far and the US will be forced to act. What that point is I don’t know. But I suspect that point is somewhere east of the Oder. It is a really depressing prospect.

  22. But I suspect that point is somewhere east of the Oder

    Russia’s current border is east of the Oder. By a significant margin. You’re either going to have to be more specific or choose a river that would actually provide a meaningful prediction. Unless of course you meant west of the Oder River, in which case you need to explain how Russia would go about annexing all the way to the German border without having a full-out war on their hands. Several, in fact.

  23. I like Totten, but I think that report on Georgia is some of the worst he’s done. This one is much more informative contains a more plausible theory that South Ossetia is almost more of conflict between Putin and Russian President Medvedev than a real claim over a backwater, nowhere place like SO.

    Money quote:
    “Putin became president of Russia twice, accompanied by two wars in the Caucasus, Chechen War One and Chechen War Two. And I would also like to remind you that when the first Chechen War started, a terrorist attack in Moscow, when a housing block was destroyed, it was supposedly done by Chechen terrorists. A war was started against Chechnya. But since then, not one person was taken to court. Nobody was caught. It was allegedly Chechen terrorists, but not one single person was caught.” The quote is from a Hungarian member of the Council of Europe, not a Georgian.

    Link

  24. Pro is right. Just because Georgia is not a good government doesn’t mean that Russia invading them is a good thing. Hell, the Kurds are back stabbing bastards who play both sides of the Iran Iraq war but that doesn’t mean it was okay for Saddam to gas them.

    John is right about Pro Lib being right.

    I call on both sides to show restraint.

    Russia wants its ethnic minorities back. Ukraine and the Baltic States are next on the list. At some point they will go to far and the US will be forced to act. What that point is I don’t know. But I suspect that point is somewhere east of the Oder. It is a really depressing prospect.

    John is also right about the probably not being the end of Putin’s ambitions; about the Baltics maybe being next, about the Oder being more or less the dividing line between us getting involved or not, and about the whole thing being depressing.

  25. “Russia’s current border is east of the Oder. By a significant margin. You’re either going to have to be more specific or choose a river that would actually provide a meaningful prediction.”

    No, you need to pay attention and read the post more closely. The Oder is currently the border between Poland and Germany. It is far west of Russia’s current border. My contention is that Russia will attempt to expand its borders West across its old empire towards the Oder. Somewhere, it will go too far and end up in a real conflict with the US. That “somewhere” lies somewhere East of the Oder and Russia. When I said “east of the Oder” I meant that the US will probably be willing to risk serious conflict with Russia over Eastern Europe as opposed to just Western Europe like it did in the cold war.

    If you are going to be pedantic, at least be right.

  26. The Georgia crisis was temporarily seen as the New Big War, to be pushed in every media outlet and sold to the public. The public didn’t like it, and the credit crisis took all the media space, so the war roll-out was canceled, simple as that. Charles Krauthammer and Ann Althouse and the rest of the neocon militia have been redeployed to other areas of the battlefield.

    In the real world, Russia’s population is imploding and their economy is stalled with the drop in oil prices and the Putin/Medvedev ruling coalition is showing fissures now that they don’t have unlimited capital to reward their allies. But I doubt we’ve heard the last of Cold War II, they’ll try it again at a later date when conditions are more favorable.

  27. Ah, DannyK, remember the good old days, when the Chinese didn’t own a trillion dollars of our debt, and the neocon militia was looking at them?

    Good times. Good times.

  28. Yeah Joe. No one is ever an enemy. They are all just made up enemies. The whole world has our best interests at heart.

  29. Right. Just like UDS has best interests of Georgians (and Russians) in mind all the time…

  30. “Pro is right. Just because Georgia is not a good government doesn’t mean that Russia invading them is a good thing”

    But does Russia invading Georgia mean that we in America “are all Georgians”? I don’t recall alot of people getting all enthused and thinking that the invasion was “a good thing”.
    Do we really have a vital interest as to whether the Russian or Georgian flag flies over some disputed territories in that region?
    Shitty things happen in shitty parts of the world at times. It doesn’t mean that we have to get on a war footing with Russia because of this.

  31. Looking for the “good guys” in the Caucasus is about as productive as looking for the “good guys” in the Balkans. Treacherous weasels, all. Nothing good ever comes from getting involved in either place.

  32. John | October 23, 2008, 3:15pm | #

    Yeah Joe. No one is ever an enemy. They are all just made up enemies. The whole world has our best interests at heart.

    He writes this, in response to my comment that the hyperventilating about the Chinese by PNAC circa 1998-2003 looks silly.

  33. ChrisO | October 23, 2008, 3:56pm | #

    Looking for the “good guys” in the Caucasus is about as productive as looking for the “good guys” in the Balkans. Treacherous weasels, all. Nothing good ever comes from getting involved in either place.

    …and assholes: Uzbekistan.

  34. No, you need to pay attention and read the post more closely. The Oder is currently the border between Poland and Germany. It is far west of Russia’s current border. My contention is that Russia will attempt to expand its borders West across its old empire towards the Oder. Somewhere, it will go too far and end up in a real conflict with the US. That “somewhere” lies somewhere East of the Oder and Russia. When I said “east of the Oder” I meant that the US will probably be willing to risk serious conflict with Russia over Eastern Europe as opposed to just Western Europe like it did in the cold war.

    What part of “You’re either going to have to be more specific or choose a river that would actually provide a meaningful prediction” provides difficulty for you? Saying they’ll be stopped somewhere east of the Oder is completely meaningless; they’re already east of the Oder. As a result, your prediction doesn’t require the Russians to do anything in order for a war to start. The quoted bit above does a good job of explaining a point that, as it stood, was completely meaningless except inside your own head. Bravo.

  35. …and assholes: Uzbekistan.

    Uzbekistan isn’t really part of the Caucasus, but your point is well taken.

    It all reminds me of LBJ declaring Ngo Dinh Diem to be the “Churchill of Asia” or when Reagan declared the Contras to be the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers.” You can’t always tell whether the Americans involved are engaged in wishful thinking or just diplomatic hyperbole. A little more skepticism is usually in order when dealing with foreign governments.

  36. Mark Ames’ main source of income is his show on Russia Today, he is a Kremlin hack.

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