War is a funny thing – it has the ability to attract such a wide variety of commentators with no connection whatsoever to the region, suddenly presenting themselves as knowledgeable authorities on the subject. That is certainly the case in the United States right now, as everyone from the blowhard armchair strategists to the intolerably bombastic talk show radio hosts, offer up anything and everything they think might stick about the Russian-Georgian war. I am not in the United States at the moment, but this is certainly the sensation I am getting as I review the press online, and speak with friends and colleagues, and hear some shocking questions and reactions – leading me to believe that there is a significant distortion effect going on and no shortage of emotional hysteria caused by the images of Russian tanks in a foreign land. I think we can blame a lot of this on electoral partisanship. UPDATE: This article contains even more recent tit-for-tat candidate exchanges on the issue.
The approach of an election is always the worst time for a violent atrocity to take place, because every candidate will be under pressure to differentiate his/her position from the other, and maximize the personal political momentum they can squeeze from the issue – a process that distorts the facts and causes the inappropriate reactions. This has certainly been the case in the States, where a perfect storm trifecta is shattering proper understanding of the issue between and among President George Bush and Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. I have often argued that when the right and the left fight over issues regarding Russia, practically nobody comes out a winner – it’s just one of those parts of the world where the radical ends of the political spectrum bend around to overlap upon one another.McCain’s campaign immediately seized ownership of the issue, criticizing Obama’s ill-considered (probably just a lazy aide phoning it in) initial response, which didn’t blame but just urge restraint by both sides, as being “bizarrely in sync with Moscow.” Obama later toughened up his statement, and both candidates agree that Bush’s comments, even days after the war began, were openly weak, permissive, and very disappointing.But having the Georgian sovereignty position inextricably tied to any one American political party is disastrous – especially when we have a politician as deeply unpopular as Bush talking about war (again) to a public that is eagerly awaiting his departure. Already there is a rapid race to the bottom on both the American right and left, who are taking advantage of these splits and inadvertently putting themselves into the business of manufacturing excuses for the invasion.Take the conservative National Review for example (they love the contrarian position of supporting Putinista authoritarianism), whose Victor Davis Hanson writes of the war’s timing: “America’s attention is preoccupied with a presidential race, in which “world citizen” Barack Obama has mesmerized Europe as the presumptive new president and soon-to-be disciple of European soft power. Better yet for Russia, instead of speaking with one voice, America is all over the map with three reactions from Bush, McCain, and Obama — all of them mutually contradictory, at least initially.“Is this really true? Let’s see, all three men have explicitly stated that Russia has unlawfully violated the territorial sovereignty of Georgia and must pull back, so all the differences are really now coming down to style – all about “sparring” over Georgia.Some nutty people on the left are deeply suspicious of anything tied to the right wing, and some are even preposterously arguing that it is nothing but an election ploy. Naturally this is encouraged by McCain’s ties to Georgia lobbyists, but then again, what lobbyists isn’t McCain tied to? These folks don’t seem to be talking about his birthday party with Oleg Deripaska either.Then there are of course figures such as Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation, who literally may as well announce his employment for the Kremlin with the robust number of commentary pieces he is doing to attack any legitimate grievance whatsoever of Tbilisi in the conflict.And believe me from personal experience as one of those few remaining guys who has friends related to both parties, many of whom have called me today to talk the blame game and push Putin’s line. It is a great pity that while thousands die in Georgia, so many Americans can only see the issue for how it can help put their horse ahead. Having McCain and Obama fighting about this is pushing many parties into the margins, and does not contribute whatsoever to the preparation of an intelligent and effective response.