Senator McCain is doing everything in his power right now to resurrect the Cold War with Russia as a campaign issue. With Russia’s invasion of Georgia, McCain now has the “double bubble” benefits of two war fronts in the same region — with the Muslim nations of Iraq and Iran in one category and with Russia in the second. International relations have once again become a major challenge to the presidency, so only a candidate experienced in hard-ball diplomacy should be elected to the highest office in the land — or so his argument goes.
However, McCain himself has serious difficulties in his grasp of foreign relations–forgetful that Iraq and Afghanistan do not share a boundary but are separated by is the entire nation of Iran, unaware that Shiite Iranians aren’t particularly friendly with Sunni al Qaeda, etc. All that Obama needs to neutralize McCain’s claims to superior experience in foreign policy would be to nominate Senator Biden as his Vice President, somebody who both supercedes McCain in the Senate’s foreign policy establishment and effectively avoids the numerous lapses in both memory and foreign policy knowledge that McCain repeatedly displays.
Nevertheless, the image of McCain’s steely aspect as he exhorts America to man the barricades against yet another threat against our nation’s cherished freedom has great appeal among low-information voters, and his effort should be confronted with the facts. For example, it should be clarified that the current Georgia debacle has resulted not from a Russian invasion of Georgia, but from Georgia’s surprise attack on South Ossetia (at the time occupied by 9,000 Russian peacekeepers described as such by all parties involved) [see the 8-18 NYT Schwirtz article, p. A10]. This was followed by a massive counterattack by Russian troops who went on to occupy additional portions of greater Georgia that they seem unwilling to leave for the present.
The NYT and other U.S. publications have ignored the actual timing of these two invasions as much as possible, undoubtedly, whether they realize it or not, to obscure the responsibility of Georgia for launching an attack that produced such a devastating counterattack. Amazingly, there has been no specific reference to this sequence of events in the NYT to clarify the fact that Georgia’s attack began in the evening of August 6. Readers are led to think that the two attacks were somehow concurrent, with the bigger Russian army obviously taking advantage of its size. However, a close examination of the press reports from the region over the two days during which the attack occurred suggests otherwise.
An Aug. 6 UPI report dated 1:17 P.M. makes no mention of warfare beyond an escalation the previous weekend when Georgian forces shelled Tskhinvali, killing six South Ossetians. Emphasized, however, is the optimistic announcement that a top Georgian government official has said his country would hold direct talks on August 7 with South Ossetian leaders “within the context of Russian peacekeeping efforts in the region, known as the Joint Control Commission.”
An Aug. 7 Voice of America News report cited the confirmation by Russian officials that talks between Georgians and South Ossetian separatists would be held, but on Friday, August 8, and it reported that Georgian President Saakashvili called for an immediate ceasefire. The report also mentioned the offer of Saakashvili to give the separatists full autonomy within Georgia with Russia helping to guarantee that status. Also, the report indicates the U.S. called for both Russian and Georgian officials to halt the violence and begin talks. South Ossetian were cited for having insisted on their struggle to gain independence from Georgia since the 1990s, and Georgians were cited as having accused the [Russian] peacekeepers of backing and aiding the separatists.
An Aug. 7 UPI report suddenly indicated an entirely new and different state of affairs: an attack by Georgian troops on late Thursday (Aug. 6), that engulfed Tshkhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. According to the BBC, “Georgia began moving troops toward Tshkhinvali a few hours after the South Ossetians agreed to a Russian-mediated cease-fire.” “The storming of Tshkhinvali has started,” South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity told the Russian news agency Interfax. A British newspaper, The Independent, reporting from Moscow, specifically quoted a South Ossetian web site that the “assault is coming from all directions.” Georgian officials tried to excuse themselves with the argument that they were trying to restore legal order. However, Iakobashvili, Georgia’s minister for Reintegration, said the government wants “to finish a criminal regime.” Significantly, Russian officials predicted mounting violence and requested an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting. Russian news agencies indicated that men from Russia and Abkhazia were rushing to join in South Ossetia’s defense and couldn’t be stopped. These seem to have been individuals rather than organized contingents.
An August 7 AP report indicated that Tskhinvali came under heavy fire early Friday, “just hours after Georgia’s president declared a cease fire.” The fact that the Thursday UPI report said the attack occurred during the late evening of Aug. 7 while the Thursday AP report said it occurred during the early morning hours the next day suggests the invasion was conducted throughout the night. If so, this could only have been a surprise attack! According to the AP report, “South Ossetia’s leader accused Georgia of treachery, but the Georgian government claimed its troops were responding to rebel attacks on Georgian villages.”
It is important to note that 9,000 Russian troops employed as peacekeepers at the same time Georgia seems to have been trying to incorporate South Ossetia into its borders as it had already done with Ajaria in 2004. This was an obvious challenge to the Russians, an effort to “steal” Ossetia’s capital in a nighttime blitzkrieg right under the noses of Russian troops. According to an Aug. 7 Radio Free Europe report cited by the AP report, Eduard Kokoity, the leader of the Russian-backed region, specifically accused Georgian forces of starting the fighting. “Russian peacekeepers did everything to make the Georgian side stop firing mortars, grenade launchers, and large-caliber weapons on the city of Tskhinvali,” Kokoity said. “But the firing didn’t cease, and we were forced to return fire. We will now do our best to suppress this.” On the other hand, Temur IIakobashvili, Georgia’s Reintegration Minister, was reported as having blamed South Ossetia for initiating hostilities: “They came up with a new method. They shoot at us from civilian objects, from schools and hospitals, so that in case of return fire that causes damages, they can present it as a barbarian act by the Georgians.” What Iakobashvili described, however, would seem a tactic that was in play preceding the sequence of events that happened in the thirty-hour span between Aug. 6 and 7.
All in all, news reports for these two days (all of those included in Lexus-Nexis cited here) indicate no concerted large-scale effort of this sort. According to a NYT report of August 18 by Helena Cooper, Georgians later claimed separatists of having fired on several Georgian villages, while Russian Defense Ministry and South Ossetian officials said that Georgians provoked this escalation by shelling Russian peacekeeping positions in the region of Tasakhinvali as well as civilian areas. However, there was no indication of these activities in any of the press reports from South Ossetia on this particular day. Instead, what seems to have occurred was a feigned agreement to begin negotiations followed almost immediately by a major nighttime surprise attack. It should also be noted that neither Cooper nor any of the daily reports indicated that an even bigger Russian counterattack was in the works at least until the following day The 9,000 Russian troops in South Ossetia undoubtedly played a major role in mounting this attack, supported by additional troops from North Ossetia as well as air power that totally dominated the skies.
Significantly, Cooper’s final paragraph in her NYT report illustrates the extreme confusion in the western media about what actually happened during the Georgian invasion. Cooper seems to have advanced events a full day from what actually happened as explained in all the local reports cited above: According to Cooper, “Georgians said the separatists shelled them [Georgian villages] all day on the 7th,” so its Foreign Minister Eka Tkeselashvili called the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Fried, to tell him her country was under attack and had to protect its people. Fried supposedly replied, “not to go into South Ossetia,” In a totally inaccurate kicker Cooper laments, “The Georgians moved in on August 8.” Not true. Everything happened on the night of August 6-7, with Georgians promising negotiations, then launching a surprise attack that apparently lasted the entire night. The mortar attacks on the 7th mentioned by Tkeselashvili were undoubtedly counterattacks in response to the invasion that had already taken place.
What Saakashvili apparently sought was a fait accompli, a quick, almost instantaneous victory that incorporated South Ossetia into Georgia before the Russians could take the needed steps to prevent it. Of course Russian troops posed a major threat to the operation, but Saakasvili seems to have felt that the timing was perfect. Putin (and indeed the entire world) was distracted by the Olympics in China, and U.S. and NATO pressure could soon be brought to bear to prevent the major counterattack that would be needed by Russian troops in order to deprive him of his victory. Condaleeza Rice might have warned him privately not to launch a major attack, but all her public statements were fully supportive, and his communications with his Washington lobbyist, Randy Schoenemann, McCain’s top foreign policy advisor, seem to have confirmed his sense that such an attack would succeed if carried out with blitzkrieg precision. Western Europe’s cautious leadership of Brown, Merkel and Sarkozy would pose no difficulties, and all the emancipated Soviet states could be counted on for enthusiastic knee-jerk support. It turns out Saakashvili was wrong. His only major accomplishment was in having given McCain his warmed-over Cold-War campaign strategy that just might win him the November election. This would be a world-class disaster, setting the stage for comparable scenarios justified by skewed misinformation in Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, and god knows how many other countries once McCain gets situated in the White House. We would have four more years to go.
American citizens were gravely misled into a devastating war in Iraq by the Bush administration’s incessant use of misinformation. This should not be allowed to happen again with McCain’s use of Georgia as a campaign issue.