Saturday, August 16, 2008

The American politics of the Georgia-Russia conflict

I stopped by our old friend Donald Douglas' blog, American Power, to see what he was up to these days.

Same as usual, it appears: typing up the latest neocon scripts. Georgia is the new "Czechoslovakia" (1968 version), vital strategic interests in Georgia, yadda, yadda, terrible Russian menance, blah, blah. And those horrible leftists and unpatriotic paleo-conservatives who don't cheer for war anywhere and everywhere are destroying our vital bodily fluids, etc.

I don't know how McCain's Cold War posturing around the Georgia-Russia conflict will play politically. A lot depends, of course, on how Obama handles the larger issues of war and peace. But if Obama can manage to ignore his conventional-minded advisers and hammer on the differences between his position and McCain's on the Iraq War, that is the most important way he can draw the contrast.

My worry politically about McCain's position on Iraq has not been that he would attract swing voters like flies to honey with his bonkers talk about staying in Iraq for 10,000 years. My concern has been more that he will blur the differences between his war-forever position and Obama's, and that he will manage to convince a critical number of swing voters that his Mean Mr. Mustard attitude will be just the thing to achieve peace in Iraq.

His blatantly aggressive posturing on Georgia is a big potential liability. The punditocracy has already decreed that since McCain is their favorite manly man, the Georgia issue is Good For The Republicans. But, in the real world, most ordinary voters just aren't terribly thrilled by the idea of perpetual war.

This is not 2002.

As that year began, we had just faced the 9/11 attacks and the still-unsolved anthrax attacks. The administration was claiming with some apparent basis in fact that the Afghanistan War had gone brilliantly. The press was, as we know, groveling at Our Dear Leader's feet - although to give the press some credit, anyone following the reporting on the Afghanistan War closely and taking the time to think about it could see that event that Great Victory was less than it was being advertised.

But even then, it took Cheney and Bush over a year to get the country fired up for war, despite all the advantages of fear, forgeries and a zombified national press. And up almost until the eve of war, polls still showed a clear majority opposed to going to war with Iraq without United Nations authority. And there were demonstrations of unprecedented size against the war prior to the invasion.

Cheerleading for a new Cold War over Georgia's breakaway provinces turns on Republican war fans, of course. But think about the difference between this situation and the buildup to the Iraq War. We had the Gulf War of 1991, in which we had defeated Saddam Hitler. Throughout the 1990s, we maintained "no-fly" zones and directed repeated missile strikes against Iraq and Saddam Hitler, including the intensive strikes of the bizarrely-named Operation Desert Fox of December, 1998. We had military encounters of various kinds elsewhere, including the Bosnia intervention and the Kosovo War. The belief in American military omnipotence was at a high point. Then there were the 9/11 attacks and the unsolved anthrax attacks and the year-plus of intensive propaganda against Saddam Hitler and his terrible arsenal of super-duper-deadly "weapons of mass destruction".

Our press is still broken, and our Congress is still prostrate. But it will take a lot more than a few belligerent-old-man speeches from John McCain to convince most people who are not already drooling-at-the-mouth war fans that the fate of the United States and World Civilization rests on the outcome of the Georgia-Russia conflict. And McCain's posturing doesn't sound like the thoughts of someone who is determined to preserve peace and contain conflict. No matter how much his fan club in our "press corps" swoon over his manly manliness.

Calling for the Russians to withdraw from Georgia as Obama has done is fine. The government would basically have to take that position no matter how badly the preventive war against Iraq has undermined our actual credibility. But I'm guessing that since a week and a half ago most Americans would have been more able to identify Quemoy and Matsu than South Ossetia and Abkhasia, beating the drums for a new Cold War is not likely to be that appealing to most voters.

Besides, what does this mean for the "transcendental" struggle against
Islamofascistunism? Weren't McCain and his twin Joe Lieberman telling us just a few days ago that this was the greatest menace that the US had ever faced? And aren't the Russians also opposed to The Terrorists and Islamofascistunism, too? Starting a new Cold War over Georgia's right to militarily retake their breakaway provinces that most Americans don't know anything about and care even less just doesn't fit well into the framework of the Long War Against Islamofascistodefeatocratunism that the Republicans have worked so hard to build up the last seven years.

McCain's free-lancing on Georgia diplomacy worries me even apart from the politics. A large part of international relations consists of countries reacting to one another based on a poor understanding of each other producing poor interpretations of each other's actions.

Having the Presidential candidate of the ruling party calling the head of government of Georgia at a moment like this could easily be taken as an official channel by those on the other end. Especially since Georgia sees its interests benefiting from more American involvement, giving them an incentive to misunderstand it as such.

Georgian lobbyist Randy Scheunemann's prominent role in McCain's campaign makes McCain's involvement in this crisis reek even more. Presumably Scheunemann was legally required to register officially as a foreign agent of Georgia to do that work. I don't think it would be stooping to Republican levels at all for the Democrats to point out that one of McCain's top campaign people was a "registered foreign agent" of Georgia, if he actually was. I noticed that the otherwise hapless Ruth Marcus used that phrase about Sheunemann on the PBS Newshour of 08/15/08.

After seeing the circumstantial evidence amassed by Gary Sick and Robert Perry on the 1980 "October surprise", I don't consider it at all far-fetched that this Georgia crisis is in part an "August surprise" by McCain and the Republicans. I'd like to see a decent investigation that would put the facts in the public record. When you have a President and rogue Vice President arguing that they can do anything they choose as long as they say it's related to "national security", it's worth asking those questions.

McCain's free-lancing to me is also a sign of the enormous sense of entitlement the Republican Party has today. Most past Presidents would have been jealous enough of their own power to tell even members of their own Party to stop the personal diplomacy in a situation like this. And what McCain and Schuenemann are doing here has to be at least borderline illegal.

But to me this is a sign of how much today's Republicans see the Party as their supreme secular authority. The Party is entitled to conduct foreign relations how it chooses. And the state and law-enforcement are expected to conform to the Party's actions.

I don't see the downside of the Obama campaign calling the Reps on this, especially over Scheunemann's role. But ever since the Gulf War of 1991, the Dems have been shuddering in fear that they might come off looking less "hawkish" than the Republicans over this or that.

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