August 20, 2008
Do We Really Want to Get Too Involved in Georgia?
When my 7-year-old son heard on the radio about a Russian invasion and bombing of Georgia, he was very concerned -- until I assured him that his grandparents in Atlanta were just fine. Given his age and the degree of emotion with which the news was reported, his confusion was understandable.
What is less understandable to me is why so many adults with little more knowledge of the region are so upset. Georgia (we really need a new name for that country, I would call it Caucasian Georgia but I am not sure that would help) is a long way off, possesses little that we need and as an ally offers us a lot more in the way of entanglements than it does in the way of benefits.
I don't want to dismiss the moral aspect of what is happening there. War is always a human tragedy. And for the people of Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia this is undoubtedly a major event resulting in repercussions and enmities that will last decades. (But then in the Caucasus, interethnic soccer games can cause enmities that last decades.)
But for America, the pragmatic question is: how big of an issue should this be made? The war is unlikely to spread outside the region (despite panicked claims to the contrary), and little is being "destabilized" by Russia. The secessionist regions involved (I could call these places "secessionist regions of Georgia" but that might add even further to the geographical confusion) have had de facto independence for almost 20 years. Georgia is not being torn asunder anew. It was stably divided. The destabilization came when Georgia (rightly or wrongly) tried to reclaim South Ossetia and Abkhazia, regions that have largely non-Georgian populations that aren't eager to be reclaimed.
Both these regions have functioned as autonomous parts of Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russia's military moves to preserve this status have simply made overt what was long understood as the unspoken reality of the situation. America's interest in favoring a different outcome in the war is questionable.
To be blunt, South Ossetia and Abkhazia can be autonomous regions of Georgia or they can be autonomous regions of Russia -- your house payments aren't going to change either way.
The most serious aspect of the war for the West and the world in general is what it says about the geopolitical predilections of Russia's leaders, Dimitri Medvedev and his mentor Vladimir Putin. But then most observers who are willing to see long ago figured out that Putin dreams of a rebirth of the Russia's Soviet (or perhaps more accurately, Russia's pre-Soviet) empire. Part of Putin's neo-Soviet worldview includes a return to a more confrontational relationship with America and the West.
If America takes a hard line in Russia's war with Georgia, we will simply feed into this tendency and provide Putin with a propaganda wedge to further split public opinion inside Russia away from America. It is, of course, tempting to side with Georgia against its larger more powerful neighbor. Georgia is a nascent Democracy and an underdog in the conflict with Russia, so our nation's sympathy will naturally tend toward her. But she is far from a clear-cut victim in this conflict.
Georgia began the shooting war it just lost. Why Georgia thought it could send troops into a de facto border state of Russia and not get hit back hard is a bit of mystery. America can only help so much when an ally displays such bad judgment. It should also be noted that the Georgian minorities in the breakaway regions (a major reason for Georgia's attempt to reclaim the regions) are there in part because of internal immigration policies encouraged during the time when Georgian Joseph Stalin was the dictator of the Soviet Union and Georgian Lavrentiy Beria was head of the Soviet secret police. Like everything else in the ancient ethnic checkerboard of the Caucuses, there is a lot of history involved. We would do well not to take any one side, especially at the risk of a new mini-cold-war with Russia.
Georgia has become the cause célèbre du jour among the media, and the war is certainly a crisis for the region. It shows us exactly who Vladimir Putin really is. But it is not a reason to react rashly toward Russia. Despite the sound of things, America should show restraint regarding the secessionists in Caucasian Georgia.
Mac Johnson writes a column for Human Events. His personal webpage is here.