H. D. S. Greenway wrote an insightful column in the International Herald Tribune on the Georgian conflict citing an apt historical precedent. Already neocons in American have attempted to liken Russia’s engagement in Georgia to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland, but what about Georgia? Are there any parallels to their strategy in history? Yes, and in fact they need only look back in their own history books.
Nearly 300 years ago, in eastern Georgia, King Vakhtang VI ruled over a petty kingdom dominated by the Persian empire. The king longed to be free of Persia, and so he looked further afield for great power protection.
It happened that Russia, under Peter the Great, was expanding its reach at the expense of Persia, which was no longer the power it once was.
Peter sounded out the Christian kingdoms under Persian dominion, and encouraged them to align themselves with the new superpower. Vakhtang was thrilled at Peter’s overtures, especially since he stood to gain kingship over the Christian nations under Persian control.
Any of this sounding familiar yet? No? Well, it gets better.
Not only did Vakhtang engage Peter’s envoys openly, he attacked a border province with 40,000 Georgian troops and then waited for Peter to come to his rescue.
Peter, however, never showed up. The Persians counterattacked with a vengeance and overran Vakhtang’s kingdom.
If you substitute democracy for Christianity, you have a parallel situation today with the Bush administration as the protector who was not really in a position to protect.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Greenway rightly points out that “spreading democracy” is neocon newspeak for the myriad of other names tacked on to colonialism and imperialism in the past, and that our crusade to civilize, christianize, democratize — whatever you want to call it — the former Soviet Union has come to foolhardy levels.
Nonetheless, if the Bush Administration truly is up to its ears in neocon ideologues as some suggest, then this blunder still could be understandable. But Greenway’s and my own question is how did this foolish of a policy towards Georgia and Russia get through career State Department and intelligence officials without anyone expecting such an outcome? Furthermore, with American advisers on the ground in Georgia, how did Georgia’s preparations for the attack on South Ossetia go totally unnoticed?
The first reports claimed that the Georgian Army slipped away without Americans noticing. This stretches credulity, and one day the whole story may be told.
The greater American miscalculation was believing that Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was so weak that the West could ignore all its warnings and security concerns, and ride roughshod over its interests with impunity. To create a client state prone to belligerency and foolhardiness on Russia’s border appears to have been reckless. Any talk of taking Georgia into NATO should be postponed indefinitely.
Russia has gained in power and influence in the last eight years, while under the Bush administration America’s standing has declined. For the Bush administration to say that invading countries and changing borders is unacceptable in the 21st century is risible, given Iraq and Kosovo.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that the American president, who wields his power more as the priest in the High Church of Democracy than as a world leader and member of the international community, could have been so easily duped by rational truths established long ago: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and when you poke a bear, should expect more than a poke in return.