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Monday, August 18, 2008

Keep It Simple, Stupid


I always get some criticism when I look at a conflict someplace in the world, consider the arguments of both sides, and decide that there aren't any good guys in the fight. There's something in American thinking that requires every fight to be a fight of good against evil. We choose sides, cast the conflict in incredibly simplistic terms, and decide that the team we're backing isn't just faultless, but incapable of wrong. For a long-standing example of this, look at the popular conception of Israel vs. the Palestinians. Israel -- despite consistently damning reports by Amnesty International -- is practically angelic in the average American's mind.

These good guy/bad guy narratives have seemed to spring up overnight in recent history. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait supposedly came out of nowhere. But the truth is that Kuwaitis had been stealing Iraqi oil through "slant drilling" at the Iraqi border. While no one would argue that Hussein's actions weren't excessive, only those who don't know the facts would say they were unprovoked -- which, given the sorry state of our media, would be pretty much everyone. The invasion of Kuwait was never presented as a dictator vs. thieves. For the home audience, it was bad guy vs. good guys.

And we're seeing the same thing in the Russo-Georgian crisis. There aren't any good guys there, no one we should root for on merely moral grounds. In the conflict, there's no real case to make for the legality of Russia's invasion -- it's pretty much unquestionably a crime. But another question is whether Georgia deserves to be seen as heroic. Not every victim of a crime is a solid citizen; criminal on criminal violence is awfully commonplace.



For background, we can turn to Matt Rothschild in The Progressive. The title tells you where he's going with this -- "No Good Guys in Russia-Georgia War":

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was reckless to send in the military to subdue the Russian-leaning province of South Ossetia on Friday.

And Russia, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, responded with unnecessary force.

As in most modern conflicts, it is civilians who bear the brunt. There have been reports of more than 2,000 civilians killed already. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have urged Russia and Georgia not to fire on civilians, and to give them safe passage. Amnesty International warns that some of the attacks may already have constituted war crimes.

Russia does not have a legitimate claim here. It brutally subdued Chechnya, which was trying to secede from Russia. Georgia was trying to subdue a restive South Ossetia. What’s the difference?


Georgia has been accused of shelling S. Ossetia in the past and of using an abusive police force to put down dissent and unrest. But they've become the good guys in this conflict, because Russia is a convenient bad guy. No history of Georgian abuse is reported, because it would spoil the good guy/bad guy narrative. Just as the Kuwaitis were the lovely, peace-loving, completely blameless victims of an attack by a madman, so Georgians are like freakin' Black Sea Quakers, living humble rustic lives in the shadow of evil.

Of course, the US shares some blame here. Our national belief that every continent is our backyard and that no pie is complete without our finger in it has made what would be a regional eruption an international crisis. Rothschild again:

When Gorbachev and Yeltsin agreed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Washington had a great opportunity to broker a global peace with only country, Russia, still capable of destroying the United States.

Bush Sr. seemed to recognize this, and pledged in 1991 not to try to incorporate the Eastern bloc nations and the former Soviet republics that border Eastern Europe right into NATO’s sphere.

But Clinton reneged on that pledge, and George Jr. has done everything in his power to further the incorporation process and to encircle and humiliate Russia.


Russia is beginning to see itself as boxed in by NATO. We're close to closing a deal on arming Poland with missiles and Ukraine wants in on the action. Imagine the situation reversed -- nations all around the US are signing treaties with Russia and "missile defense" systems are placed in Canada and Mexico. Think that'd go over real well?

Russia saw the need -- real or imagined is irrelevant at this point -- to deal with Georgia and S. Ossetia before Georgia entered NATO. As I say, Russia's action was unquestionably illegal. But it was also fairly predictable.

"But does Russia's behavior cause Obama to rethink reliance on 'soft power' -- dialogue, disapproval, diplomacy, economic carrots and sticks -- which Putin considers almost an oxymoron?" asks columnist George Will. "Does Russia's resort to military coercion, and its arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, cause Obama to revise his resistance to missile defense?" As is so often the case, Will proves his reputation as a brainiac is unearned. It's 'soft power' that's currently defusing this situation -- which, by the way, I can almost guarantee will be forgotten by the wandering American attention span within a year.

The French used diplomacy to broker a peace deal. Meanwhile, the American right was busy accusing Russia of returning to either Empire or the Soviet era, depending on which panicky nut you asked. While our government was busy trying to get us on board with a new Cold War, another nation was busy doing something constructive. Where McCain borrows Hillary Clinton's 3 A.M. phone call argument against Obama, it was the French who actually answered that call, not the US. Whether or not their efforts will have any lasting result is an open question, but anyone who thinks American bluster accomplished anything at all just hasn't been paying attention.

But that's all too complicated. The US government and media believes that every conflict must be presented as Superman vs. Lex Luthor -- a simplified version of right and wrong where nations take actions for no reason other than to be evil. There must always be a good guy and a bad guy. If that narrative isn't exactly true, it will be made true by constant repetition.

-Wisco