THE PLANK AUGUST 11, 2008
So there is historical memory in America! In fact, the American discussion of the Russian war on Georgia seems to consist mainly in remembering, or misremembering. The most pressing question of all is not how to stop Putin's vicious attack on an independent democratic state with a dream of the West, but whether or not we are witnessing a repetition of the Cold War. Who wants a repetition of the Cold War? Welcome back to the analogists' ball. If you are disgusted by Putin's war, then you are a grandchild of rollback and the sort of liberal lemming who would invade Iraq all over again. If you are not disgusted by Putin's war--no, everybody is disgusted by it, everybody thinks that it should have never been authorized and never been waged--if you prefer, let us say, not to get too worked up about it, to keep your head, because there are other moral and strategic considerations that must be taken calmly into account, then you are the sterling sort of liberal who has discovered, and not a moment to soon, the sublimity of realism. Actually, I am unfair here. It is only the latter sort of liberal that I wish to mock.
My colleague John Judis has flabbergasted me with something he posted on these pages a few hours ago. In an item ominously called "A New Cold War?", he writes: "McCain has consistently refused to acknowledge that Russia's turn toward an aggressive nationalism was triggered at all by American moves to expand NATO, abrogate the anti-missile treaty, build a pipeline through Georgia bypassing Russia, and a new anti-missile system in Eastern Europe. For McCain, it's simply a product of Vladimir Putin's evil intentions. That kind of outlook could fuel a new Cold War." Of course, a Russian invasion of Georgia could also fuel a new Cold War; but I'm getting ahead of my point.
I leave aside the matter of McCain and Obama, since I think the war in Georgia is primarily about the war in Georgia and not another excuse to chatter about the presidential campaign. I agree with Judis that abrogating the anti-missile treaty was stupid in a dark, Cheney-ish kind of way, though I fail to see the American offense in preferring that Russia not control every inch of pipeline that flows westward from central Asia. But it is not Judis's bill of particulars that amazes me so much as his general argument. I have heard it before, when I was a puppy. Judis appears actually to believe that Russia is--how shall I put it? I'll try the old way--expanding because it feels encircled. He writes plangently of "older Russian fears of encirclement." His quick picture of Putin's actions across Russia's border portrays a completely reactive man. What else was Putin to do? We pushed him into Georgia! And then there is the use of that word "simply." As in: "For McCain, it's simply a product of Vladimir Putin's evil intentions." That little word does a lot of business. Coming from an intellectual, it is one of the cruelest insults. As in: For Judis, it's simply a product of Western behavior. Not nice, right? And the insult to Judis is of course greater than the insult to McCain. For McCain always thinks simply, doesn't he? I mean, he supported the war in Iraq. But for Judis, and all the other liberals who have sagely grasped the limits of American force and the blandishments of soft power and the danger of flying too close to the sun--they pride themselves upon their complexity. They are not simply anything.
There is a large historical and even philosophical matter at stake here. It has to do with the analysis of the motives of America's rivals and enemies. Briefly, I see no reason almost ever to reduce their actions to our actions. Yes, history is a bramble of causes and effects, direct and indirect, and our policies have consequences; but still our rivals and our enemies are autonomous historical agents. They have beliefs and interests and desires and fears that we did not give them, or provide the occasion for them to get. Is there anything at all that we know about Vladimir Putin, about his background or his worldview or his career or his way with power, that makes his invasion of Georgia surprising? Putin champions a particular vision of Russia and a particular vision of Russia in the world. That vision is indigenous to himself and to the political culture over which he presides. It is a primary fact of the contemporary world. Not even the presidency of Barack Obama will rid him of it. You see, he does not wish to be rid of it.
So Judis's comment strikes me as a robotic reiteration of the old left-wing view of the Cold War, here applied to post-Soviet Russia. It is just a matter of hours before Richard Falk writes the same thing. (It turns out that those who remember history are also condemned to repeat it. Bummer.) But I will grant Judis his question. Is this a new Cold War? Truly I hope it is not. But whether or not it is a new Cold War, in Gori--and tomorrow maybe in Tbilisi--it is a hot war. Whether or not it is a new Cold War, it is an old war of authoritarianism against democracy. So what exactly are we supposed to tell our friends, the besieged Georgians? That we are tired? That they should have provoked Putin before 2003, or before 2001? That we have re-read Niebuhr?
George W. Bush remarked today that the Russian invasion of Georgia is "unacceptable in the 21st century." That is exactly what someone who just spent a few jolly days in the Bird's Nest Stadium would say. After all, haven't we googled and globalized ourselves out of this sort of outrage? So, I prefer Judis's anxiety that there may be historical continuities. I am not sure if the new strategic role of Russia--and China, for that matter--makes our century continuous with the twentieth or the nineteenth; but I have no doubt that the twenty-first century is not a new beginning in human affairs, and that we are entering another era of great power competition. The labels are not that important. What matters is a proper description of what is happening. It was a proper description of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait that made an effective response possible. It was an improper description of the atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda that delayed an effective response in the former and prevented an effective response in the latter. No, it is not clear how exactly the West can get Russia the hell out of Georgia. But description must precede prescription, as clarity must precede policy; and it is really disheartening to see this war so callously and tendentiously misdescribed. It makes me worry that the influence of the presidency of George W. Bush on American liberalism will last a very long time.
Click here to read John Judis's respose.