Casus Belli By Proxy

Commentators reach for imprecise historical analogies in framing Georgian conflict

Before fighting was halted today, media coverage of the Russian-Georgian conflict had been awash with memories of the West’s tepid defense of Eastern European freedom: 1938 Czechoslovakia, 1956 Hungary, the Czechs again in 1968, and even Georgia itself in 1924. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has compared his country’s plight to
that of the marginalized victims in several of the above conflicts. He has also claimed that Georgia could be the world’s last hope for Balkan democracy: “If Georgia fails, it will send a message to everyone that this path doesn’t work,” Saakashvili told The New York Times’s James Traub. (“Georgians are a melodramatic people, and few more so than their hyperactive president,” Traub noted.)

But Western media commentators have been more than ready to invoke the memory of bygone non-interventions. “Is that ‘appeasement’ we see sidling shyly out of the closet of history? Are we doomed to recall the infamous remark by a Western leader that it was ‘fantastic’ to think Europe should involve itself in ‘a quarrel in a faraway country between people of which we know nothing?’” asked Newsweek’s John Barry.

The New York Times’s Bill Kristol joined in: “Is it not true today, as it was in the 1920s and ’30s, that delay and irresolution on the part of the democracies simply invite future threats and graver dangers?”

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr scolded yesterday, “Marching through Georgia, the Russian army is providing the latest example in history of the failure of great powers to support little countries when the chips are down.”

“It is impossible to view the Russian onslaught against Georgia without these bloodstained memories rising to mind,” wrote Newsweek’s Barry. It’s also an easy way to frame a conflict that Westerners know little about. But is it really accurate to assign moral equivalence to the suppression of anti-Soviet independence movements, the ruthless conquests of Adolf Hitler’s armies, and Russia’s aggressive intervention in a Georgian separatist struggle?

In the Guardian a few days ago, historian Mark Almond wrote: “Anyone familiar with the Caucasus knows that the state bleating about its victim status at the hands of a bigger neighbour can be just as nasty to its smaller subjects.” And, writing recently in the Christian Science Monitor, Georgetown professor Charles King argued that, in assigning Russian culpability, the media narrative has been all too predictable:

Now, the story goes, Russia has at last found a way of undermining Georgia’s Western aspirations, nipping the country’s budding democracy, and countering American influence across Eurasia. But this view of events is simplistic. American and European diplomats, who have rushed to the region to try to stop the conflict, would do well to consider the broader effects of this latest round of Caucasus bloodletting - and to seek perspectives on the conflict beyond the story of embattled democracy and cynical comparisons with the Prague Spring of 1968….The war began as an ill-considered move by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force. Saakashvili’s larger goal was to lead his country into war as a form of calculated self-sacrifice, hoping that Russia’s predictable overreaction would convince the West of exactly the narrative that many commentators have now taken up.

While the Georgian government has been quick to present itself as another victim in the struggle between malevolent superpowers and feeble, freedom-loving countries, Western media commentators would be wise not to rush to such an easy verdict. Despite the Prague-Hungary comparisons, the Russian-Georgian conflict is not another Cold War conflict. This time, a compelling liberation narrative is coming from the opposite side of the Iron Curtain. Ossetian and Abchazian public opinion clearly favors Russia, which has left many Russian commentators asking why the West does not deem those provinces worthy of popular sovereignty.

Unlike Georgian soldiers who have been repeatedly left stranded on the battlefield, asking “Where are our friends?” Ossetians are receiving all the military assistance they expected from their more powerful allies. By and large, Russia’s invasion into Georgia has been encouraged by the heavily censored Russian press. In the West, we have the luxury of using the media to debate military and political decisions. Crude historical associations not only obscure this debate, they may also force us to come to the wrong conclusions.

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Sacha Evans is a writer in New York.