Cathy Young Responds to Glenn Greenwald Re: The Left and Putin's Russia

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Editor's Note: On October 24, Contributing Editor Cathy Young wrote a column taking the left to task for "making excuses for Putin's Russia." That column, which discussed in detail Salon's Glenn Greenwald, provoked a response from Greenwald, which can be read here. Below, Cathy Young responds to Greenwald.

Several points are in order.

1.  Once again, Greenwald muddies the issue by conflating two different positions: (A) that Russia's invasion of Georgia was an "unprovoked" attack; and (B) that the principal "bad guy" in the conflict was Russia while the principal victim was Georgia.  Position A is indeed, as Greenwald states in his new post, "factually false."  But it has not been espoused, to my knowledge, by any prominent person other than Sarah Palin.  Position B is indeed the consensus, not only in the United States but also in Europe, as evidenced by the European Union's strong commitment to Georgia's reconstruction.  (The preliminary report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, issued on October 2, faulted Georgia for escalating the conflict to open warfare but devoted about ten times as much space to criticizing Russia's actions.  The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers also contained some criticism of Georgia's actions but concluded that these actions could not be regarded as aggression against Russia to which Russia had a legitimate right to respond.) 

If Greenwald wants to challenge the view that Georgia was the principal victim in the conflict, that is of course his right.  However, he can hardly call this view a "blatant falsehood" or "factually false"; it is an entirely legitimate interpretation of the events.

According to Greenwald, the instances I cited of Georgia's role in the conflict being acknowledged in the U.S. media are just isolated dissenting viewpoints against the backdrop of a prevailing orthodoxy.  Not so.  These examples show that Palin was widely criticized for characterizing the Russian attack as "unprovoked," and that Condoleezza Rice accurately described the Georgian role in initiating military action in her speech at the German Marshall Fund.  There are numerous other examples, such as this Time magazine article.  In a random TV news transcript I pulled off Lexis/Nexis, from NBC Nightly News on August 10, both anchor Brian Williams and reporter Tom Aspell clearly stated that the Russian invasion came in response to the "Georgian attack" to retake South Ossetia.  A September 16 New York Times article about new evidence offered by Georgia to back up its claim that Russia actually started the military action was based on the premise that Georgia is generally viewed as the instigator of the open conflict.

2.  My very first article on the Russia/Georgia conflict, published on August 13, stated that Saakashvili is "no liberal hero," that his move to reestablish control over South Ossetia "was not only a major strategic blunder but also an assault on an area heavily populated by civilians," and that "on a political level, there are no real good guys in this conflict; the only true innocents are the ordinary people caught in the crossfire."  It's a bit absurd, then, to suggest that I accuse anyone who doesn't consider Saakashvili a hero in a while hat of being a Putin-symp.

3.  I strongly disagree with Charles Krauthammer's column, quoted by Greenwald in his latest post, accusing Obama of "moral equivalence" for his initial statement urging "mutual restraint" by Russia and Georgia.  Obama's statement on August 8, made immediately after the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali and the Russian counter-assault, was entirely appropriate at that point.  However, I have a far higher opinion of Obama than does Greenwald, who scoffs:

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.

Could it be that Obama changed his response (the very next day) as the circumstances of the war changed, and as it became clear that Russia was using the counterattack in South Ossetia as a springboard for full-scale aggression against Georgia?  Incidentally, in his later full statement on the issue, Obama harshly condemned Russia but also urged Georgia to "refrain from using force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," so Greenwald is quite wrong to say that he adopted a completely one-sided position on the issue.

4.  Greenwald approvingly quotes a BBC report claiming that Russia came to be seen as the bad guy in the conflict because it "lost the propaganda war" and just wasn't as good at spin as Georgia and its U.S. backers.  This notion, also eagerly adopted by Russian officials, is utter nonsense.  Russia lost the propaganda war because it made claims that turned out to be flagrantly false—such as the absurd allegations of Georgian "genocide" in South Ossetia.  Russia's initial estimates of 1,500 to 2,000 dead in Tskhinvali have quietly dropped to about 150, and according to PACE findings most of those dead may have been combatants.  Reports of atrocities such as execution-style shootings of young men, rapes, and intentional killings of children turned out to be pure fiction.  As the PACE report recognized, while both sides were guilty of violence toward civilians, most of the ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia was inflicted by South Ossetian militias on Georgians while the territory was under Russian control.  (This highly informative statement by a Human Rights Watch representative discusses grossly unreliable claims by South Ossetian refugees.  Yes, they're all a bunch of neocons over there at HRW.)

5.  Greenwald thinks the notion of autocratic Russia trying to snuff out Georgian democracy is too simplistic.  Really?  Few dispute that Russia has engaged in a covert war against Georgia since 2004, when Saakashvili came to power after the "Rose Revolution." One of Russia's tactics in this covert war was to create a class of "Russian citizens" within Georgia by issuing Russian passports to thousands of South Ossetians.   (If the Bush administration gave the status of expatriate U.S. citizens to thousands of people in a separatist Iranian province and then used their "protection" as a pretext to invade Iran, would Greenwald see moral ambiguities in this situation?  Somehow, I doubt it.)  Over the same four years, Russia turned South Ossetia into the world's most militarized region—essentially, an armed camp run by Russian military and security officers and a launchpad for small-scale warfare against Georgia.  (For more on the subject, see this speech at the Cato Institute by former Putin advisor Andrei Illarionov.)

Has the Georgian government made mistakes and committed abuses?  Sure.  In particular, in November 2007, Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency in response to unrest, ordered the violent dispersal of demonstrations, and temporarily shut down an opposition TV station (ironically, one owned by Rupert Murdoch).  However, shortly thereafter, he called for new elections to renew his mandate.  These elections, which took place in January 2008, were recognized as generally free and competitive by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, despite some fairness problems.  Four candidates were able to run and campaign freely, with the leading opposition candidate getting 27% of the vote.  (Saakashvili got just over 52%.)  In fact, it may well have been the "cleanest" election held so far anywhere in the former USSR.  Compare and contrast to Russia's farcical "election" of March 2008, in which no serious opposition candidate was permitted to run against Vladimir Putin's handpicked heir/puppet, Dmitry Medvedev.  In 2007, Georgia ranked 66th out of 169 countries on the Press Freedom Index of Reporters without borders, while Russia ranked 144. (In 2008, Georgia's ranking dropped to 120th as a result of the crackdown in late 2007 and the war-related press restrictions—still well above Russia, at 141.)

It is this struggling and imperfect, but nonetheless real democracy, subjected to tremendous pressure from neighboring authoritarian Russia, that Greenwald scornfully describes as a "neocon project."  A few words on that: The opposition movement that brought Saakashvili to power—and ousted the U.S.- and Russia-backed Eduard Shevardnadze—was financed mainly by that noted neocon, George Soros.  (In mid-2004, The Weekly Standard ran a rather harsh article attacking Saakashvili as a Soros puppet.)  As for the supposedly damning fact that the U.S. has helped train the Georgian military, Newsweek recently ran an interesting report on the subject.  Apparently, U.S. military involvement with Georgia actually began in 2002 in full cooperation with Russia, with the purpose of training and equipping the Georgian army to hunt down Chechen rebels (allegedly linked to the Al Qaeda) in the Caucasus mountains.  More recently, according to the report, U.S. military training programs carefully avoided doing anything that could have been perceived as training the Georgian army to fight Russian forces—which partly explains why the Georgian military fared so poorly in the war.

To sum up: Do I think Greenwald loves the Putin regime?  No, of course not.  Do I think his (often deserved) revulsion at the Bush administration's policies has turned into a knee-jerk tendency to be against whatever the "neocons" are for, and consequently into a very real moral blind spot?  Yes, and this blind spot is nowhere as evident as in Greenwald's glib, reprehensible dismissal of Georgian democracy.

A final note: I did not, of course, mean to imply that sympathy with Putin's Russia is limited to the left.  Vlad also has the European fascists in his corner.