It appears that Bernie Mac has passed away; surprising, and very sad. I, for one, do not blame Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for this.
…how long before the folks at NO QUARTER add Mac to the Obama Death List?
Further thoughts on the developing crisis…
In an earlier post I suggested that the question of moral righteousness in this war is muddled; both Georgia and Russia have plausible justice claims, and as such the determination of “fault” can’t really depend on an evaluation of principle. This pushes practical questions into the foreground, and I think that I was unclear (both to myself and others) regarding how those practical questions should have leaned very heavily against Georgian escalation of the situation in South Ossetia. To be a bit less muddled, I am less sympathetic to the Georgian case because I think that escalating the war (and providing an excuse for Russian counter-escalation) was a damn stupid thing for Saakashvili to do, and a remarkably damn stupid thing for him to do absent an extremely compelling cause. Small, weak states living next to abrasive, unpredictable great powers need to be extremely careful about what they do; in most cases, their foreign policy should, first and foremost, be about avoiding war with the great power. This is what Saakashvili failed to do. The war didn’t need to escalate; it was a Georgian decision to move from the village skirmishes that were happening on Tuesday to the siege of Tsikhinvali on Thursday.
I understand that there can be a bit of “blaming the victim” to this analysis. Russia has consistently pursued imperial aims in its Near Abroad (so does every great power, including the US) and has treated Georgia badly, with a succession of threats, boycotts, and efforts to promote the secessionist forces which are causing the trouble today. Georgia had every right to seek NATO membership in order to limit Russian efforts (although NATO had every right to turn Georgia down). Russia has been a bad actor, but it was nevertheless a terrible and unnecessary mistake to pick a fight with Russia over South Ossetia, not least because the balance of perfidy on South Ossetia is uncertain. This is why I’m unsympathetic to Saakashvili and to his claims that Georgia is fighting for freedom against tyranny. For example, I think that the Taiwanese would be considerably more justified in a declaration of independence from the PRC, but such a declaration would still be reckless, and would leave me less sympathetic to Taiwanese calls for aid.
The United States also bears some responsibility. US rhetorical and material support for Georgia may have given the Georgians unrealistic expectations about likely US behavior in a Russia-Georgia confrontation. Specifically, anything other than “we will not support you in any way or under any circumstances” might have led to the Georgians having the wrong idea.
The Military Balance
At Defense Tech, my good friend John Noonan has briefly run down the military balance between Georgia and Russia. Georgia has an entirely respectable post-Soviet military for a state of its size, which has probably benefitted from US training and from its experience in Iraq.
Russia is… Russia. It has overwhelming advantages in manpower, equipment, and technology. The Russian Army is not your… uh, older brother’s Russian Army. It’s not the Army that lost the First Chechen War, but rather the Army that won the Second Chechen War, and that has significantly improved itself since then. Because of the extended oil boom, all of the equipment that Russia used to sell to India and China but not buy itself is now standard. That puts it a generation and a half ahead of Georgia; not quite US vs. Iraq, but not far off. Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that training, discipline, and morale have substantially improved under the Putin-Medvedev dynasty. On paper, Russia should be able to utterly crush Georgia.
However, the war will not be fought between the full Russian and the full Georgian militaries; rather, it will be fought between the Georgian and whatever forces the Russians can get to South Ossetia and keep supplied there. And that may have been the crux of Georgian strategy. As Doug Muir notes, there is only one road between Russia and South Ossetia, and no substantial airfields. Doug:
There was always this temptation: a fast determined offensive could capture Tsikhinvali, blow up or block the tunnel, close the road, and then sit tight. If it worked, the Russians would then be in a very tricky spot: yes, they outnumber the Georgians 20 to 1, but they’d have to either drop in by air or attack over some very high, nasty mountains. This seems to be what the Georgians are trying to do: attack fast and hard, grab Tsikhinvali, and close the road.
It looks right now as if that strategy has failed. The Russians seem to have been able to deploy a substantial armored force in South Ossetia, and also seem to control the sky. Of course, we don’t know what things will look like tomorrow, but right now they don’t look good for Georgian efforts to close the road. And if the Georgians can’t close the road, they are in very serious trouble. Indeed, even if they do close the road they might be in trouble; the other way that the Russians might get into South Ossetia is to go through Georgia. That would be an escalation, but the Russians might be tempted by their overwhelming theater superiority, and by the stakes.
The Local Political Situation
Saakashvili was having political trouble before the war began, and will enjoy a bump even if Georgia loses. That won’t last long; if the Russians don’t remove him themselves, the Georgians probably will at some point. The stakes for Saakashvili are, thus, quite high, which is possibly why he spent half the day begging for Western assistance on CNN.
The stakes for Putin and Medvedev are also extremely high. I think that they could have given up on South Ossetia without taking a severe domestic hit; their popularity is solid, Russia is still making plenty of money (even with oil dropping), and Abkhazia has always been the more important of the two frozen conflicts. Now that they’re committed, however, I suspect that it will be very hard for Putin and Medvedev to disengage. It’s war; anything can happen, and if the Georgians somehow manage to pull it out, it’s a political disaster for the Russian leadership. The Putin dynasty’s legitimacy is based around the idea of Russian national resurgence, and if a ridiculous little country like Georgia manages to give the Russian Empire a bloody nose and get away with it, Putin and Medvedev become vulnerable. This, I think, is the most dangerous part of the crisis for Georgia. Russia will pull out the stops to win this war; if they can’t win easy, then they’ll win hard, because Russia’s leadership really doesn’t want to be beaten. The problem isn’t just external. I don’t really believe that reputational effects matter for international politics, but even I wonder whether the rest of Russia’s Near Abroad would get restless if the Russians failed to discipline Georgia. And I’m damn sure that Putin and Medvedev do take reputation very seriously, and will spend considerable blood and treasure to make sure Russia’s neighbors remain intimidated.
Moreover, it’s not just the downside of defeat that will drive Russian behavior; the Russians really want to win because they will see serious gains from victory. Putin will likely be able to dispense with the Prime Minister nonsense after pounding Georgia to dust, because the Russians will elect him God King, or at least “discover” that he’s actually the heir to the Romanov throne. The Ledeen Doctrine works much better for Russia than for the United States, because people understand that Russia really doesn’t care; she will destroy you without troubling her conscience about democracy. Russia gets to demonstrate her power, solve two of the Frozen Conflicts (the Georgians are never getting Abkhazia back if Russia wins here), and humiliate the United States, all at the same time. They hit the trifecta if they win this war.
The Larger Political Situation
If the war develops as expected, and Russia pounds Georgia until the latter cries uncle, the United States will have suffered a substantial political setback. Hegemony or no, the United States will have been unable to give significant military aid to an Iraq War ally facing the prospect of interstate war. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s not great.
As a few people have noted, Georgia’s chances of getting into NATO are dead. They probably weren’t going anywhere anyway; lots of people foresaw just this problem, and NATO involvement here might well have made the situation immeasurably worse. If Russia had been deterred from responding, then the Georgian effort to conquer South Ossetia would have gone okay. If Russia had called the West’s bluff, then we would have had a serious problem; my guess is that hundreds of diplomats in Europe and North America would have been begging Saakashvili not to invoke Article 5. If he had, NATO would have been thrown into the most severe crisis in the history of the alliance, and might well have been destroyed. And that’s the upside; if NATO went to war with Russia, the damage would have been inconceivable.
In any case, I certainly hope that the conflict is brief, and that casualties remain as low as possible.
For your consideration, here is a list of the “evidence” Peggy Noonan assembles to sustain her argument that “things are shifting” in the 2008 campaign:
So far, Noonan has failed to discern a pod of dolphins bearing little John McCain to safety, but the election is several months off, so there’s time yet for miracles.
As for the substance of Noonan’s observations, I’m not sure it’s even worth pointing out that half the hits for McCain’s ads have likely come from embedded videos on progressive websites, where the head-scratching centers on the question of whether his campaign is more interested in dog-whistling racist assholes or scaring the pants of people who think the Left Behind series was a prescient vision of Things to Come. (Also, I’m assuming that Obama Girl is still handily defeating the McCain girls in the Equally Meaningless Musical Proxy Subdivision, so McCain’s advantage is probably a wash overall.)
Beyond that, I can’t imagine anything more absurd than the notion that the Sturgis biker rally somehow congregates the “silent majority” of American voters. I would think McCain could reach an equally representative cross-section of voters simply by attending a plushie/furry convention of some kind. But since a few thousand people dressed up like squirrels and pandas or masturbating to old Pepe le Pew cartoons wouldn’t comport with Peggy Noonan’s fantasies of a robust and reptilian “old America,” she’d probably just ignore it if he did.
I was an Edwards supporter early on, so I find this particularly disturbing. In an ideal world I agree this would be a private affair in every sense, but did he really think he could get away with this while running for president? And did he ever consider what a disaster this would be for his party — not to mention the nation — if he had actually won the nomination?
I’m not sure what’s more amusing about this; the notion that Barack Obama is the Antichrist, or the idea that the plots of the Antichrist (and presumably by extension the Apocalypse) can be foiled through the electoral process.
Yesterday, Tom Maguire pointed to what he claims is an old defense of the “conventional wisdom” on the exclusion of Saint Casey from the 1992 Democratic convention (although, in fairness, his analysis is actually a little more intelligent than that.) I see no reason to believe that Begala is wrong that Casey’s failure to endorse the Democratic ticket played a role in his not being invited to speak, but purely for the sake of argument let’s say that this is just ex post facto rationalization. It remains rather critical to distinguish between two distinct claims: the argument that Casey (as the Times said yesterday) didn’t speak “because he is pro-life” and because “he wanted to give a speech attacking his party’s position on reproductive freedom.” (Maguire carefully conflates the two by framing this as whether Casey was excluded “because of abortion.”) The Myth of Casey relies on dissembling and giving version #1. And this is necessary, because if stated as the much more accurate version #2, the claim that the party did something wrong is transparently ridiculous.
Well, maybe not fully transparent. Maguire, whatever his other sins, does us the favor of reminding us of this remarkable claim from Peter Beinart:
I think one of the great problems in the debates about abortion and gay rights is the perception that liberals are illiberal and nondemocratic. It’s remarkable to me how many people still mention the fact that [the anti-abortion Pennsylvania governor] Bob Casey was denied the right to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention. That was an illiberal thing the party did. And there is an important debate for liberals to have about the role of the courts in pushing social change.
So “liberalism” requires that a political party give a speaking slot at its nominating convention to anyone who wants to give a speech attacking a party’s core values? Is this guy for real? What would the idea of a political party even mean if this was true? I think we can see why Beinart thought that running Joe Lieberman in 2004 was a peachy idea.
And as dumb as this idea is in the abstract, it’s even worse in context:
So Casey Sr. was not some random pro-lifer. He was not a nominal pro-lifer who wasn’t actively trying to criminalize abortion in the manner of Harry Reid. He was at the epicenter of a movement to take away a cherished constitutional right from American women, and moreover a movement that seemed at the brink of succeeding in forcing poor women to the black market if they wanted to control their reproductive destinies. And he wanted to broadcast his views — both unpopular and contrary to core party principles — at the party’s convention.
Of course he wasn’t permitted to do this, and even if had been the sole reason for his exclusion the party’s decision would have been indisputably correct. The only “illberal” or “intolerant” actions here were the actions of Casey. Are the Republicans obligated to give speaking spots to people who support single-payer health care and Denmark’s tax policies? If John Lindsay wasn’t permitted to give a speech at the nominating convention in 1984 attacking Reaganonmics despite his demands would we still be hearing about how the “intolerant” Republicans had “treated him shabbily” decades later? I think these questions answer themselves.
We’re likely to here quite a lot from the right about Russian perfidy in the next couple of days, but the situation is, of course, a lot more complicated than all that. Both the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians would, apparently, rather not be part of Georgia. The Georgians are, I think, correct to suggest that this isn’t the full story; ethnic cleansing of Georgians has taken place in both locales, both are pretty much run by gangsters, and the Russians have been playing non-stop shenanigans. Principles also clash; countries shouldn’t be able to just set up private fiefdoms in neighboring countries, but people shouldn’t be forced to live in countries where they don’t want to live.
Both the Russian and Georgian cases are generally unsympathetic, but I guess that I’m mildly less sympathetic to the Georgians. Saakashvili didn’t need to start this; the situation was pretty much stable before, and in general things would be better for the people of South Ossetia (and Georgia) if bombs weren’t being dropped on them. Moreover, the Russians have a fair case, based on the Kosovo precedent, that the Georgians shouldn’t be allowed to unilaterally settle the disposition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And yes, I know that this produces as many questions as it answers; pro-Russian and pro-Georgian trolls should feel free to battle each other in the comment section.
…incidentally, CNN coverage is terrible; virtually no mention of the fact that the Georgians launched an offensive prior to the Russian attacks.
…Saakashvili is playing the “freedom” card pretty hard:
“This was a very blunt Russian aggression. … We are right now suffering because we want to be free and we want to be a multi-ethnic democracy,” Saakashvili said in the interview. “We are in this situation of self-defense against a big and mighty neighbor. We are a country of less than 5 million people and certainly our forces are not comparable,” the president said.
Saakashvili also said it was in the United States’ interest to help his country. “It’s not about Georgia anymore. It’s about America, its values,” he said. “We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack.”
Sure. Nexon also points out that rhetoric has consequences.
…Russian tanks are firing on Georgian positions outside of Tskhinvali. Josh Keating points out that Georgia’s hopes of entering NATO are as dead as Caesar’s ghost; there is no will whatsoever in NATO to actually defend Georgia from Russian attack, and it ain’t just the Europeans.
… Nathan Hodge points out that it’s not just the rhetoric that might have inclined the Georgians to push harder; it’s also the training and weapons they’ve been receiving from the US.
Looks like we have a situation developing between Russia and Georgia. Were I Saakashvili, I probably wouldn’t have picked this fight…
Dan Nexon reaches an unnecessarily modest conclusion at the end of a long post that includes, like, research and math and stuff:
[W]hen it comes down to it, I don’t really have much confidence in any of the estimates people like me are throwing around [regarding the silly tire inflation “controversy”].
That’s really the point of this exercise: neither I, nor David Price, nor Ed Morrissey, nor Jim Geraghty have a clue how to make sense of this controversy. All we did was use our search engine of choice, find links that supported (or, if we didn’t read them too closely, appeared to support) our claims, and then amplify one of the partisan sides of this debate. This kind of stuff isn’t investigative anything, it’s nothing more than back-of-the-envelope calculations by unqualified people.
Let me rephrase: our analysis is basically worthless. Ignore it.
This is quite true. Except that Nexon — unlike Ed Morrisey, Jim Geraghty, David Price — isn’t a transparent hack whose analysis I wouldn’t trust to navigate anyone through a routine trip to the grocery store. Besides, his skill at deciphering what is quite probably the greatest menace to human civilization means that, humility aside, ignoring him is a bad idea.