“We don’t want to fight, yet by Jingo! if we do, We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too.”
- British chorus in 1878, sung in support of resisting the Russians in Turkish waters. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Dear citizens, I beg your pardon for bringing you a fight with the Washington Post editorial board. However, important qualities like honesty and consistency and futures of war and peace are at stake, and we must defend ourselves against a prejudiced press. The Washington Post is my hometown newspaper, and our elected national leaders can hardly avoid it. The paper must be the epitome of truth over propaganda, patriotism over jingoism. Unfortunately, it has not been.
As the fight in the Caucasus was getting underway—not before understanding what was happening was possible, but before the Washington Post editorial board understood or cared to understand—the paper ran an editorial under the headline “Stopping Russia.” For several days after, many Americans would have to be excused for believing that a Russian invasion was the sum of activity. Even our candidates for the White House seemed to have fallen victim to this faulty impression. I countered the Post editors with the following letter.
It is interesting how two directly parallel and simultaneous events can be perceived as complete opposites—one a “negative” image of the other. Or, perhaps more to the point, how one’s actions appear quite different when tried out by another.
At the end of the Soviet Union, the world was introduced to new geographic entities known as FRY’s, parts of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. At exactly the same time, two entities in Georgia broke apart from the newly independent state. These two groups of potential nations have traveled virtually identical paths.
Both areas have had to fight for independence. The FRY’s have succeeded in winning recognized independence with support from the US and NATO. In 1995, NATO planes dropped munitions to complete the job of freeing Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Just to press the point, the process was repeated in 1999 in support of the new break-away province of Kosovo, also on its way to independence.
The Georgia Republic has been as reluctant to accept the de facto independence of its two break-away republics as had been Serbia. From a distance, and as Anne Applebaum has pointed out, we have maintained our distance, the actions of both governments appear very much the same. The actions of the Russian government, meanwhile, seem to directly reflect the actions of the west in the FRY. Yet, the Washington Post editorial board sees no such parallel in its condemnation of Russia’s actions (Stopping Russia, August 9, 2008, A14).
Principles matter—if they are consistent. Otherwise, they are mere slogans. In this case, the Post claims, “[t]he principles at stake, including sovereignty and territorial integrity, apply well beyond the Caucasus.” But they do not. The principle in 1995 and 1999 was self-determination, favored over sovereignty and territorial integrity. The only principle that seems in effect here is once a Cold War, always a Cold War. I hope the editorial board will examine the issue more deeply and fairly and with a healthy regard for past principles like self-determination that just might apply today.
The editorial hardly mentions the Georgian actions although they were characterized in the paper’s front-page lead story in this manner.
Television images showed Georgian rockets firing into the night sky. Reporters in Tskhinvali said many houses were engulfed in flames, a hospital was destroyed and a university was on fire. One Russian peacekeeper told Interfax, the Russian news agency, that the city was “practically destroyed.”
More than 10 Russian peacekeepers have been killed and about 30 have been wounded in Tskhinvali, Col. Igor Konashenkov, aide to the commander in chief of the Russian Ground Forces, told Interfax.
Estimates of civilian casualties from the separatist government ran as high as 1,400. South Ossetian civilians were flooding to the border with Russia, according to news reports. (“Russian Air, Ground Forces Strike Georgia”)
Of course, these reports could be greatly exaggerated or even fabricated as a number of statements by Georgian officials, including the President, Mikheil Saakashvili, have proven to be. Nonetheless, ignoring them in the editorial presents a very skewed view to the paper’s readers. It serves to portray the Russian response as wholly unjustified. That is misleading. Misleading Americans is against everything this web site stands for. Jingoism is not patriotism.
On August 11th, the Post presented another stirring editorial beating the drums for war. After the sweeping statement “no one can take seriously any longer the fiction of Russian ‘peacekeepers’”—as if Georgia’s unmentioned invasion of South Ossetia had erased all history—the editors asked two questions when two hundred could have applied.
Does Russia now want to advance further into Georgia? Or does it want to keep Georgia’s democracy in a perpetual state of tension? (“Russia’s Dare”)
Those are the only options? Why not also ask, “Does Russia want to punish Georgia for its attack on South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers serving there under an international agreement?” Or how about, “Will Russia degrade Georgian war-making capacity to the point that it will no longer pose an immediate threat to South Ossetia?” Perhaps we could ask, “Is Russia remaining in Georgian territory to gain control of South Ossetian militia members who have followed its forces and are now attacking Georgians?” But examining these questions risks finding justification for Russia’s acts.
For the Post’s editors, Russia can only have nefarious aims, so they present two challenges implying we must engage in confrontation. First they ask of European nations “Will they now unite to strengthen their position?” Lest, dear citizens, you think this is not a taunt about perceived weakness, the editors present the second challenge in appeasement language few can mistake: “Will the West understand that it cannot buy peace by tendering the sovereignty of vulnerable nations?” Honestly, who has offered up Georgia to the Russians—apart from the stupid and irrational Saakashvili, that is? The editorial board’s charge is remarkably offensive and ridiculous.
The board was not nearly done. On August 12th, it quoted President Bush condemning Russia and demonstrating a stunning lack of self-awareness. “Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.” The outrageous hypocrisy was ignored by the Post, responding, “Well said, but what to do about it?” The board offered its own advice, also apparently unaware of US actions under President Bush.
Nations on every continent should make clear that invasion and conquest are not acceptable modes of behavior and that Russia will face long-term and damaging consequences if it persists in occupying parts of Georgia and even more damaging consequences if it extends its military campaign. NATO’s plans for the joint defense of members such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland need to be urgently upgraded… (“The Invasion Continues”)
No one has shown that Russia is prepared or willing to invade those states, nor has anyone credibly alleged that Russia has actual plans to do so now or ever. But, the US did rush to sign a missile defense treaty with Poland that has no immediate use, timing the signing to coincide with Polish fears and to take advantage of Russia’s poor international standing.
The belligerent Georgian President then was given a platform in the Post on August 14th. Not one to shy away from exaggeration, Saakashvili continued his taunting of the West for their failure to bail him out of his gross error.
Russia intends to destroy not just a country but an idea. … brutally purging Georgian villages in South Ossetia, raping women and executing men. …understanding Russia’s goals is critical. Moscow aims to satisfy its imperialist ambitions; to erase one of the few democratic, law-governed states in its vicinity; and above all, to demolish the post-Cold War system of international relations in Europe. (“Russia’s War is the West’s Challenge”)
There is scant evidence that Russia has done any of this, and it lacks the ability to do most of the President’s over-the-top claims. After describing a fantastic history of the recent conflict that omits the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali, Saakashvili goes on to defend his actions and his country: “Georgia’s only fault in this crisis is its wish to be an independent, free and democratic country.” Well, that and launching unguided rockets designed for battlefields against a city and its civilian population. Try to ignore that, dear citizens, so that we may answer Saakashvili’s important question without a bias formed by facts: “If the West is not with us, who is it with?” I, for one, would like to be with people who do not rocket cities.
The Washington Post’s editorial on the opposite page points to Saakashvili’s fanciful accounting and pledges support. After repeating unsubstantiated claims about Russian actions, all carefully couched with qualifiers like “said to be” and “reportedly,” it turns to Georgia’s acts.
Mr. Saakashvili says…that the facts are otherwise, that he ordered his troops into action only after a Russian armored column was on the move. It that’s not true—if he moved first—he was indeed foolish, and if Georgian shelling targeted civilians, it should be condemned. (“Blaming Democracy”)
The editors are encouraged to read their paper’s own reporting, quoted above, and begin condemning without delay. Other, mostly non-American, news agencies repeated and solidified the story of Georgia’s attack every day since the beginning of the conflict. One must hide from the reporting to take Saakashvili at his word.
By the end of last week, CNN, which had been featuring reports under the banner “Russia Invades Georgia,” included a Wolf Blitzer caveat that a report he showed was Georgian-sourced. He claimed that Russian-sourced reports were unavailable. Like many people, I had been watching Russia Today for the preceding several days to learn the Russian version of events (also biased as the liberal use of terms like “genocide” and “devastation” reveal). On the same day as Blitzer’s warning, Russia Today was showing CNN reporting and noting the bias in western (read, American) reporting that seemed consistently to start the history of the conflict with Russia’s response, not Georgia’s attack. Russian reports were available, Mr. Blitzer. Clearly the desire to see the other side’s reporting worked in at least one direction.
By Friday morning, August 15th, the Washington Post was printing an essay by a Russian journalism intern, Olga Ivanova, who longs to return home after her lesson on the fourth estate had gone sour: “But in recent days it has felt as though I am too late, that the journalism of Watergate is well behind us and that reporting is no longer fair and balanced.” She points to the critical and consistent flaw: “Yet American newspapers published stories that omitted mention of the Georgia invasion.” (“A Free Press? Not This Time”)
The same page featured commentary by former Bush administration Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Paul J. Saunders. “What is clear, however, is that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his country’s military to assert his authority over South Ossetia by force.” It is also clear from the Washington Post’s own reporting that independent Georgia has never effectively asserted authority over South Ossetia. Saunders sees through the Georgian President’s attempt to channel our Founding Fathers. After calling attention to repressive acts since his assumption of office, Saunders informs us “Saakashvili is far from the morally pure democrat he would have the West believe he is.” (“Georgia’s Recklessness”)
On August 18th, the Post’s Fred Hiatt stepped forward with a commentary under the title “Who Made Russia Attack?” It is a further attempt to assign our worst fears to Russia’s actions and to ascribe motivations behind the known events. It is wise to worry about ulterior motives, but not necessarily wise to insist that our suspicions be part of public condemnation or drive our response. We might do better to accept Russia’s explanations and demand that it act in accordance with those statements. I do not mean that continuing to quibble over the actuality or pace of a Russian withdrawal is appropriate. The sooner Russia can leave the better for everyone. But, we might understand that if Russia is to sustain stability and security in and around South Ossetia, its withdrawal must be “condition-based” and not tied to an arbitrary timeline. Comments on Iraq and the surge indicate the Post’s editorial board does understand this concept.
Today, the “destruction” of Georgia is proving to be somewhat more limited and controlled than described by Saakashvili while the Georgian destruction of South Ossetia is coming to light. An August 20th story in the Washington Post indicates, “The Georgian government said Tuesday that 215 Georgians, 69 of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict so far and that 70 soldiers are missing (“Russian Intentions Unclear”). Western journalists have made it to Tskhinvali, where it appears CNN’s Matthew Chance quickly found more destruction than he had been able to find in Gori, Georgia. More will follow, and we will have an opportunity to act on facts, not allegations, raw emotions, and reflexes.
We also might more appropriately form our response on this unfortunate event if we look at what did not happen. That is, if we asked ourselves another question which the Post omitted: What if the Russians had held back?
The United States has been criticized for not acting in Rwanda when hundreds of thousands died. We have been criticized more quietly for doing little or nothing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where as many as three million have been killed. While President Bush has declared the fighting in Darfur “genocide”—the same term the Russians used to justify their intervention in South Ossetia—he has steadfastly refused to land US troops there to stem the violence. Even in Bosnia, where we did intervene with great success, we were criticized for being tardy, thereby allowing too many to die. The massacre in Srebrenica remains in the West’s guilty conscience as a crime we might have prevented. Finally, in Kosovo, the parallel or hypocritical event (take your pick), we acted firmly and quickly. We bombed Serbia proper for weeks to force the Serbs to cease the violence. We destroyed public utilities and even, accidentally, hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, far from the conflict zone. In the end, we stopped the killing by the Serbs, and then immediately stopped our own acts that had created death and destruction among the attacking Serbs and the civilian community.
I reluctantly agree with some of the criticism regarding our failure to act. I was in northern Italy from 1993 to 1998 supporting US and NATO actions above and around Bosnia, and I was sickened to see the carnage at Srebrenica occur during my watch. I wish we had been able to do something in Rwanda, but I wonder if we could have been effective. I am ashamed that we have allowed so many to die in east Congo without making a serious attempt to achieve peace.
I am proud, however, to have played a small role in ending the killing in Bosnia and Kosovo. I think we did the right thing. I fear that overly criticizing the errors of what can legitimately be described as a Russian action to support the self-determination efforts of South Ossetia in the face of violent repression by Georgia, can lead to undue criticism of our actions to support the self-determination efforts of Kosovo in the face of violent repression by Serbia. Again, I think we were right. So, I wonder if the Russians would have been right to stand aside and allow Georgia to re-launch a war with South Ossetia. Sixteen years ago, thousands of people died when South Ossetia fought and won its independence from Georgia. Who can countenance the resumption of that catastrophe?
We must ask many more questions than the meager and misleading two asked by the Washington Post. How many would have died from President Saakashvili’s ill-planned attempt to conquer that territory had Russia not intervened? How many deaths did the Russian invasion avert? Dear citizens, we must ask what our position toward South Ossetia would be if the Russians had not rushed to their aid? Would we still support the Georgian President in his bid to crush the Ossetian 16-year-long bid for self-determination? Would we reject their right to act on their ethnic differences with the Georgian population and their desire to be closely linked to Ossetians on the Russian side of the border? Or, are we ignoring their desires simply because they are supported by Russia? Are we being reflective or reflexive? The South Ossetians are largely ignored in this “with Russia or with Georgia” debate. Why are we indifferent to them?
I asked above if we might allow that Russia’s withdrawal should be allowed delays for humanitarian actions. An August 20th Washington Post story by Jonathan Finer makes the question an imperative.
Georgians living in several of the villages said the Russians occupying their land had treated them well, done nothing to encourage them to leave and offered the only protection available from the South Ossetian militias they feared most.
“I am most worried when I don’t see Russians around,” said Tina Grimradze, 68, whose house in the village of Arbo was ransacked Sunday, her belongings either strewn or stolen. (The Toll of the War in Georgia’s North)
Finer’s reporting also casts doubt on Georgian claims of rape and murder. But it makes clear that Ossetians are bent on revenge. We should wonder if perhaps they have justification for that and should wonder also what would happen if Georgians, rather than Russians, were positioned to keep them in check.
The Washington Post quoted Saakashvili on August 9th claiming, “This is not about a tiny separatist area inside Georgia. … This is not about Georgia anymore. It is about America, its values.” Enter John McCain, who has also claimed nations do not invade other nations in the 21st century. He knows our values for us as a Washington Post story on August 12th indicates: “McCain said he told him [Saakashvili] ‘that I know I speak for every American when I say to him today, we are all Georgians.’” (“McCain to Georgian President: ‘Today, We Are All Georgians’”) But, dear citizens, McCain does not speak for me. I know our values indicate that we are perhaps as much Ossetians as we are Georgians. Our actions indicate we are perhaps as much Russians as we are Georgians. Perhaps we can act more truly to our values and can persuade the Russians, the Ossetians, and the Georgians to do the same. But jingoism will not help us do that. We need patriotism.
- Alan Howe, August 2008