“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
–H. L. Mencken
I believe very few Americans understand the extent to which Democrats and Republicans embrace the same agenda. From the “War on Drugs” to our unilateral arms race, some of the most wasteful and destructive U.S. policies are not up for discussion. Concern about the strong emotional reaction any critique of such policies tends to generate outweighs concern about insuring our nation is governed by the best available ideas. This is why the 2008 election so often seems to be about baby steps in the realm of social progress while events of our times offer the chance of a transformational event.
On the other hand, the crisis in South Ossetia illustrates that there are real differences between the leading candidates. In the immediate aftermath of the first major outbreak of violence, Senator Barack Obama called for a pull back on the violence and a search for alternatives to military action. It was an eminently civilized call for restraint. Senator John McCain ridiculed this plea for peace. In his eyes, Russia is an evil empire, Georgia was victimized . . . oh, and Czechoslovakia was never dissolved.
Though the man took time to ridicule his rival’s call for non-violent solutions to human struggles, apparently he did not have time to educate himself about the realities of this complex conflict. Given only a superficial glance, there is no time to see anything other than Russia’s forceful and deadly violation of a neighbor’s sovereign territory. Yet should we let the foreign policy of the world’s lone military superpower continue to turn on casual glances and gut reactions to world events?
Among the underlying realities are the fact that the people of South Ossetia identify much more strongly with Russian governance than the Georgian regime. Just as loyalty to the government of Turkey prevents the U.S. from supporting independence Iraqi Kurds so strongly desire for themselves, loyalty to Georgia prevents the U.S. from supporting the desire of the Ossetian people to become united within the Russian Federation. The fact that such a desire is inconvenient to our State Department is a poor reason to behave as if it simply does not exist.
Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, this particular conflict zone was being pulled in two directions. Early Soviet organizational plans divided Ossetia with an eye toward weakening ethnic identities in order to strengthen the new national identity. The southern half of the area was incorporated into the Georgian SSR, though some measure of autonomy was recognized. As with other Stalinist pushes to marginalize ethnicity, as in Chechnya for example, control asserted by the hypermilitant security state gave way to grave problems in future decades.
Today’s Georgian conflict is a delicate matter because there are two worthwhile principles in direct conflict. National sovereignty is one. After the first Persian Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush declared “a new world order” and created a solid foundation for geopolitical stability. With a standard holding that unprovoked international military aggression is always unacceptable, conditions existed that were good for business and good for the peaceful varieties of political reform as well.
Then along comes President George W. Bush, demonstrating that no semantic game-playing is sufficient to prevent the world from recognizing a bold act of unprovoked international military aggression as precisely that. No serious historian is likely to reflect on these events as an uncommonly bloody and torturously slow “liberation.” Contemporary world leaders may now exploit this horrible example for their own purposes.
The genie so briefly bottled is once again on the loose. Even the doctrine of “pre-emptive defense” was enough to accomplish that harm. Yet, to whatever degree it was a factor in the original push for war, bringing stability and democracy to the people of Iraq is now the closest thing to a legitimate reason proponents of continued occupation can muster to justify their stance. Yet it is also strikingly parallel to the Russian rationale for this invasion of Georgia. Past referenda and polls paint a clear picture of an overwhelming desire by the people of South Ossetia to be reunited with North Ossetia, a goal best accomplished by joining the Russian Federation.
Georgian leaders denounce the organized emigration of South Ossetians into Russia as if it were a campaign of genocide. Yet those migrants willingly, even eagerly, pursue Russian citizenship. It is simply not honest to suggest that non-violent efforts to strengthen ties between South Ossetia and Russia constituted any sort of attack. Clearly the principle of self-determination is at issue as well.
On the other hand, even South Ossetia contains some diversity. For generations, ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians have been intermarrying freely. Prior to the recent attacks, the Georgian government provided many essential services to the people of South Ossetia. It would also be dishonest to suggest that the Georgian regime has no claim on that territory. Defending sovereignty and supporting self-determination — each a justification for a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime — are principles in opposition in Ossetia today.
Should South Ossetia be ceded from Georgia and absorbed into Russia? Should both South Ossetia and North Ossetia break away from their respective states in order to form a modern sovereign Ossetia? Should the borders remain precisely where they were one week ago today? None of those questions need be answered to judge the comments of the two leading U.S. Presidential candidates. Both speak chiefly to one issue — should this dispute be settled over a conference table or on a battlefield?
It is hard to devise a greater form of evil than “war for its own sake.” Though the 2008 election looks to be a referendum on the war in Iraq, both sides seem moved much more by emotion than reason. Mainstream journalists’ patronizing chatter about how engaged and informed the electorate is during this cycle does not reflect a sudden upsurge in accurate fact recall by poll respondents or other measures of informational merit. As many journalists are themselves more connected to narrative emotions than the underlying realities of world events, it is no surprise that they should mistake passion for savvy in others.
Still, there is good cause to hope that the passions of those who oppose war will, in this rare instance, truimph over the passions of those who support war for its own sake. Bloodthirsty Americans exist, and in Senator McCain they have found a voice on the national stage. His ridicule of calls for peace, his oversimplification of a complex conflict into a “black hats vs. white hats” scenario, his deliberate confusion of brute strength with useful effectiveness — all these things make him a true spokesperson for the warmongers among us. I do not dispute that those Americans deserve a voice in the process. Yet I would ask, can we do no better than to give that lot yet another term of power with which to lead us down the roads warmongers inevitably lead their peoples?