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It Was 3 A.M., And We Were Asleep

Posted in Main Blog (All Posts) on August 12th, 2008 4:34 am by HL

It Was 3 A.M., And We Were Asleep

The Politico rightly called the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia a real “3 A.M.” moment for Obama and McCain. In the case of McCain, it proved him to be reckless and rash, simplistic and belligerent — “much worse” than Bush, declared Talking Points Memo.

This is no surprise to me. His deep neocon sensibilities are why three years ago I called McCain “the most dangerous man in America.”

But it was also a “3 A.M.” moment for the broader liberal movement. And I am sad to say that we failed.

Despite the shattered credibility of the neocon community, in this crisis neocons have still proved able to pounce in a foreign policy crisis, frame a situation in the crudest of terms, shape media coverage and misinform the public: Georgia, the pro-Western (our team!) defender of freedom and “territorial integrity,” Russia, the “dictatorial and aggressive and fanatical” imperialist power (not our team!).

Pick your side, crush the other, dismiss complexities and consequences — an approach that has worked so well these past eight years.

While we on the left (including myself) were collectively slow to react, slow to offer deep context and message framing that would get ahead of neocon media rush.

And now we are once again in the humiliating position of reacting to gibberish, forced to make defensive arguments why more saber-rattling bluster and demonization of adversaries is unhelpful to freedom and stability.

Oh, there are voices out there doing good work. Here’s just a sampling:

Moderate realist (not technically “left”) Steve Clemons at the Washington Note:

When Kosovo declared independence [in February] and the US and other European states recognized it — thus sidestepping Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council — many of us believed that the price for Russian cooperation in other major global problems just went much higher and that the chance of a clash over Georgia’s breakaway border provinces increased dramatically.

By pushing Kosovo the way the US did and aggravating nationalist sensitivities, Russia could in reaction be rationally expected to further integrate and cultivate South Ossetia and Abkhazia under de facto Russian control and pull these provinces that border Russia away from the state of Georgia.

At the time, there was word from senior level sources that Russia had asked the US to stretch an independence process for Kosovo over a longer stretch of time — and tie to it some process of independence for the two autonomous Georgia provinces. In exchange, Russia would not veto the creation of a new state of Kosovo at the Security Council. The U.S. rejected Russia’s secret entreaties and instead rushed recognition of Kosovo and said damn the consequences.

Now thousands are dead. The fact is that a combination of American recklessness, serious miscalculation and over-reach by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as well as Russia’s forceful reassertion of its regional national interests and status as an oil and gas rich, tough international player means America and Europe have yet again helped generate a crisis that tests US global credibility.

Matthew Yglesias:

This highlights, I think, some of the limits of the kind of bluff-and-bluster approach to foreign policy that seems popular among conservatives these days. Or, rather, it highlights the fact that popular as bluster-based policymaking is on the American right it can have some extremely high costs and that, tragically, a large proportion of those costs can wind up being borne by the people who were nominally supposed to be the beneficiaries.

Lawyers, Guns and Money:

…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 [China], 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 Agonist:

Vital versus just ‘interests’? I think this really should be the main question the establishment elite guardians of our foreign policy discourse should be asking themselves: do we have any vital interests at stake in Georgia and should Georgia be a part of NATO?

You all know my answer. No, to both.

Now, I am not saying the BTC [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline] isn’t important to our interests. Like it or not, folks, we need oil. But I just don’t see BTC rising to the level of vital strategic interests for us. And I don’t see any vital interests effected by Russian support of the annexation or independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, just as I saw no vital interests at stake in Kosovo, or our intervention in the Balkans writ large. This is not, I repeat, not to say there aren’t any interests involved, just none that are vital, worth going to war over. The Russians realized this in Kosovo and we should have the common sense to realize the same thing in Georgia. It’s not our neighborhood so just leave it be.

I would also recommend following Newshoggers, American Footprints and Foreign Policy Watch among others.

And MSNBC’s Countdown (the liberal oasis of cable TV) tonight offered great insights from former Bush National Security Council official Flynt Leverett and Air America host Rachel Maddow. (See video below)

So we had more relatively quick insight on the periphery of the discourse than usual. And we have a growing stable of voices that we can turn to in times of crisis.

But our liberal community was slow to turn to and elevate those voices.

And while many of those voices were knowledgeable and offered better understanding of the underlying issues, they were not as suited to succinctly framing those issues for broader media consumption — the way the John Boltons of the world have excelled at doing.

In turn, neocon frames dominated the early coverage. Which is not just a political loss for us, it’s a substantive loss for an informed electorate, thoughtful foreign policy and well-functioning democracy.

No matter what happens in November — especially if Obama wins in November — we are going to have to get better at this, for the sake of national security and global stability.

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