Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lust for the Cold War

It appears, though reports as of this moment suggest the possibility of continuing fighting, that a cease-fire will end the Russian-Georgian conflict, at least for now. The Russians even say they agree to French president Sarkozy's proposal of returning to the troop positions before the conflict, with Medvedev saying it's enough to have punished Georgia and more or less decimated its military. But I doubt if we've seen the last of repercussions.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this conflict is the extent to which it has unleashed nostalgia for the Cold War, with Russia as the easily identified, easily demonized enemy again. From the Wall Street Journal to the Heritage Foundation to AEI to Bob Kagan writing in the WaPo. the calls to "do something" about the evil Russians' aggressions against a valued democratic ally issued plaintively.

Trouble is, as this Register editorial outlines briefly, it isn't all that clear who the bad guys or aggressors were here. Just as Georgia sees Russia as the neighborhood bully, the smaller separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia see Georgia as the neighborhood bully, and for reasons rooted in history and ethnicity among other factors they prefer (at least significant majorities do) to be more closely associated with Russia, perhaps even to be part of Russia.

The timing was surprising, but the conflict wasn't. Russia felt (and was) dissed when it was weak and chaotic in the 1990s, but now that it's waxing fat on oil money and has a canny autocrat at the helm, it's worrying about the "near abroad," as Russian regimes have for hundreds of years. It's not necessarily necessary, but Russia has always wanted only neighbors who are friendly or vassals on its border, and the prospect of a state longing to be in NATO, with Saakashvili talking constantly about eventually "retaking" the two provinces that have been de facto independent and allied to Russia (which made all residents Russian citizens was predictably too much for Russians eager to flex their geopolitical muscles a bit to bear. However it started, the Russians were better prepared (probably have war-gamed it a hundred ways).

However, who rules South Ossetia is hardly a core U.S. interest, so there was no sensible reason for the U.S. to intervene -- and besides it had no way to do so. All the blustering without any concrete way to punish Russia only made Bush and McCain (and to some extent Obama) look silly and exposed how helpless a giant the overstretched imperial power is. And to have the invader of Iraq moralizing about invading sovereign countries? I suspect Bush is so self-righteous he didn't even notice a contradiction.

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