“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”
– The American Declaration of Independence, July 2nd, 1776, Thomas Jefferson, et al
Are we being true to our founding principles, dear citizens? While our Founding Fathers’ evocative and lyrical eloquence firmly establishes in the minds of all that they are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, many perhaps remain separated from another fundamental truth found in the opening lines of the Declaration. That is, that people have an assumed right to self-determination.
The Declaration does not begin with a justification for independence, per se. It notes, rather, that “it becomes necessary” to chart an independent path from time to time, and then proceeds to explain why it is necessary in the case of the colonies to be independent of the British Crown. Americans and American governments since have had a relationship with self-determination for other peoples that arguably drifts on occasion from this principle. It is, nonetheless, our primary founding principle: we could be free and independent as anyone can.
Dear citizens, we are drifting away now.
While one might be confused that the fight in the Caucasus is a valiant Georgian attempt to survive the depredations of a resurgent (choose one) Czarist or Soviet Russia, the fight is nothing of the sort. The ideological lines would be familiar and comfortable if that were only the case. Few could argue against protecting Georgia and its troubled Democracy against a Russian attempt to consume it and separate its people from western influences like that troublesome declaration above. Many, including especially the Washington Post editorial board, have loudly declared that this is exactly what is happening in the Caucasus today.
It is clear, however, that Russia had no intentions to “wipe out” Georgia or destroy its government. Although the Russian leadership is relentlessly critical of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, it made no serious attempt to remove him from power. While the Georgian military provided no defense of its country—the President claims he decided not to resist and the military retreated before the advancing Russian forces—the Russian commanders stopped their incursion well short of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The Russians did not make the resignation or exile of Saakashvili part of any agreement to cease hostilities. The Russians did not demand the cession of any Georgian territory except for two small parts that have never been controlled by an independent Georgia.
At the risk of appearing somewhat hypocritical in my comments, I will leave aside the challenge of Abkhazia for the moment. Readers may take my advocacy for South Ossetia to apply to Abkhazia as well. Principles—here, self-determination—are universal or they are irrelevant and not truly principles. The fight at hand, however, is a fight over South Ossetia, so I will focus on that enclave. It is there, especially, that our founding principle seems most ignored and our history seems so twisted out of shape.
There is a cry that we must do all in our power to defend Georgian Democracy. In that regard, I wholeheartedly agree. Last year, the Economist magazine rated governments on a democratic index. Georgia came in at number 104. Russia was at 102. The Georgian President has, as pointed out in an excellent essay by Tara Bahrampour, violently suppressed a November protest. He has closed an independent television station. Journalism students in Georgia doubt that they have freedom to report on their own government. Bahrampour declares that “the media were less free than they had been under the previous leader, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (“In Georgia, Watching a Young Democracy’s Spirits Flag,” Washington Post, August 31, 2008). The actions reported by Bahrampour caused Freedom House to lower its Democracy rating of Georgia in 2008.
All through my long career in the U.S. Air Force, I was required repeatedly to take an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” I never swore an oath to any President. As I have pointed out elsewhere, we must be with Georgia and its Democracy, not with its President. We would be foolish to offer Saakashvili strong support ahead of the calm, reasoned reaction of Georgians to his attack on South Ossetia. Georgians must be given time to understand and reflect on the recent violence. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke wrote on August 22nd “What matters most right now is massive economic and military assistance to Georgia” (“What the West Can Do,” Washington Post). But that is not in our interest, not in Georgia’s interest, and certainly not in South Ossetia’s interest. I wrote the Post editors with a counter proposal.
Economic assistance to ensure Georgians do not pay a heavy price for Mikheil Saakashvili’s foolish military bluster is necessary. But the Georgian President should be left to contemplate his damaged military for a while. Protecting Saakashvili against political retaliation from Georgian citizens must not be a consideration. Saakashvili is not our ally; Georgia is.
The money not spent on Georgia’s military should provide economic and reconstruction aid to South Ossetia. If we fail to do that, Russia will be their lone savior. Generous US aid, appropriate to repair damage caused by our ally, will build a bridge that can later enable relations between Georgia and its former territory.
While the likelihood the two governments will have friendly relations is small, and the chance Georgia will regain the territory is all but destroyed, the border between the areas is permanent. They must have a chance to get along, and the South Ossetians must know they have more friends than just Russia.
South Ossetia is landlocked. It has a border on three sides with Georgia. It shares a border on the fourth side with the Russian province called North Ossetia. If we consider those three facts long enough, we will understand why South Ossetians are allied with Russia. Would anyone damn the Ossetians for this? Yes. Many would. But that is not without precedence.
Nicaragua is the lone country to join Russia in acknowledging the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nicaragua has been where these small republics are now. When the Nicaraguans got out from under the severe oppression of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the Carter Administration refused to support the new Sandanista government. Forced to seek aid from our Cold War rivals, Nicaragua quickly became an enemy of the United States. Freedom for the Nicaraguan people so twisted U.S. sensibility that the Reagan Administration engaged in dealings with the also-hated Iranian regime to illegally arm Contra rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government. Being opposed to the self-determination of nations does not suit us.
Commentary on the current fighting also has us out of sorts. It sometimes completely omits all mention of South Ossetia. In the early days of the conflict, the fighting was described as a fight between Georgia and Russia or “Russia Invades Georgia” as CNN put it. The Georgian attack on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, was rarely mentioned. Perhaps the most severe slighting of South Ossetia and the Ossetians’ desire for self-determination came in an astounding statement by the Economist magazine: “But Russia’s aggression in Georgia must not be rewarded by conceding the enclaves’ independence” (“South Ossetia is not Kosovo,” August 28, 2008, Economist.com). Remarkably, South Ossetian desires are to be forfeited because of Russian actions. Or, to put it more accurately and damningly, Georgia’s aggression to restore Stalin’s legacy must be rewarded by blocking South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence. Is this consistent with a philosophy of American independence and with our history of resisting the Soviet Union? Are we now on Stalin’s side?
The Washington Post editorial board continues its jingoistic rants, most recently providing the ominous warning that “what is happening in Georgia is very much about ideology, and the longer the Europeans pretend otherwise, the greater the damage they will have to contain” (“Understanding Russia,” September 2, 2008). [This editorial remarkably contends that the Russian actions regarding South Ossetia is more like the U.S. seizing Ottawa over a Canadian withdrawal from NAFTA than it is like our very parallel actions in Serbia over Kosovo.] But, the paper’s own reporting provides a history of South Ossetia that ought to push all of us firmly onto the side of Russia and especially of the South Ossetians.
As noted in other, earlier commentary, Joseph Stalin, himself from Gori, Georgia, split Ossetia in two and gave a portion to Georgia. When Stalin’s Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the newly elected President of the newly free republic of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, choose as one of his “first acts” to “cancel the political autonomy that the Stalinist constitution had granted the republic’s [Georgia’s] 90,000-strong Ossetian minority” (“’We are all Georgians’? Not So Fast.” Michael Dobbs, Washington Post, August 17, 2008). Chaos resulted. A civil war that killed thousands resulted in de facto independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, monitored by Russian, Georgian, and the independent republics’ peacekeepers.
The fact that an independent Georgia has never controlled these republics has not deterred the new Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. On August 7th, in the middle of the night, while South Ossetians slept, Saakashvili ordered his forces to open fire. Saakashvili and Georgia want their inheritance from Stalin back. And we, well, we want them to have it. Today, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney stood next to Saakashvili and gave his support to restoring Stalin’s legacy. “He said he also assured Saakashvili in one-on-one talks that lasted over an hour of the U.S. commitment to keeping the breakaway regions within Georgia” (“Cheney offers support for Georgia, slams Russia,” Reuters.com, September 4, 2008).
Dear citizens, we are being disloyal to our Founding Fathers’ recognition of the principle of self-determination. We are doing this in order to restore the legacy of Joseph Stalin. It is a tragic shame. We need hardly be surprised that Abkhazians and South Ossetians are celebrating recognition of their independence. So did we when ours was won. If we can stay loyal to our founding principle, we may one day see a peaceful and whole Ossetia, and then we can all say with no shame and with fidelity to our history, “South Ossetia? What South Ossetia?”
– Alan Howe, September 2008