Russia, Georgia & the U.S.: A Double Standard in Action, Ed Herman, Z Magazine
With the short Russian war on Georgia, the U.S. mainstream media rushed to the barricades in a now familiar and routine manner, as in their usual service supporting the invasion-occupation of Iraq and their portrayal of the "huge threat" posed by Iran's nuclear program. Of course, Russia's attack and occupation did differ from that of the United States in Iraq in a number of ways. For one thing, Georgia borders on Russia and has been armed and its military trained by powers not friendly to Russia (the United States and Israel). The national security threat it poses to Russia as a client of these foreign powers is not negligible. In contrast, Iraq had been effectively disarmed and was not a client of a threatening foreign power—hence its national security threat to the United States was negligible.
A second and closely related point is that the Western arming of Georgia and U.S. effort to get it into NATO has been part of a larger program that has seriously jeopardized Russian national security. In allowing East Germany to join West Germany in 1990, Soviet President Gorbachev had received an assurance from U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would not expand "one inch" eastward, let alone incorporate all former Soviet clients into a Western military alliance. Not only was this promise violated, but the United States has aggressively intervened in the political affairs of a number of ex-Soviet states on Russia's southern flank and established bases in several of them, again posing a national security threat to Russia. More recently, the United States has even negotiated for the establishment of anti-missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland, purportedly to protect against Iranian nuclear missiles that don't exist and would not threaten the host countries even if they did exist. Again, by contrast, Iraq did not have any anti-U.S. program and was not part of an alliance that posed any national security threat to the United States.
A further point of great relevance is that the recent serious escalation of violence between Georgia and Russia began on the evening of August 7 with Georgia bombarding Tskhinvali, the capital city of South Ossetia, and sending a substantial military force into the province. Given that Georgia was a U.S. client, that the United States (along with Israel) had armed and trained Georgian forces, that only days before the Georgian attack it had participated in joint maneuvers with Georgian forces, and that U.S. and Israeli personnel were present in Georgia at the time of the attack, it is very possible—even very likely—that the Georgian attack was not a foolish mistake by the Georgian leadership, but rather a proxy action carried out on behalf of the United States. Its design is not clear, but might have been to further humiliate Russia, which had failed to act in the long series of other hostile Western moves. Or perhaps it was meant to provoke it into action to test its response capability, or to push the new Cold War to a higher level for political advantage (helping the war party and John McCain—the expected "October surprise" one month early).
In any case, Russia responded 24 hours after the opening large-scale Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali, drove out the Georgians, and attacked and occupied part of Georgia proper in the next few days. For some years South Ossetia had been quasi-independent, though legally part of Georgia. Peace had been maintained previously by a status quo agreement that left South Ossetia independent and with a number of Russian and other peacekeepers present. The Georgian attack of August 7-8 targeted, along with the civilian population of Tskhinvali, the residences of the Russian peacekeepers who suffered a score or more deaths and many wounded. Once again, the contrast with the U.S. attack on Iraq is clear: Iraq had not attacked or threatened the United States; it was attacked on the basis of false claims about Iraq to help market an invasion-occupation. (In May 2003 Wolfowitz famously acknowledged that "weapons of mass destruction" was featured for bureaucratic and political reasons.)
The way in which U.S. officials and the media handled the Russian response to the Georgian assault has been a lesson in bias, misrepresentation, decontextualization, and the applied double standard. It has also often been funny.
Russian Action Threatening Start of a New Cold War
One of the most remarkable and funny of the official and media cliché responses has been the charge that Russia's attack threatens the commencement of a new Cold War. But the Cold War was re-inaugurated immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with U.S. and Western support of a program of ultra-shock therapy and mass-thievery-privatization that crushed the Russian economy, assured an oligarchic structure of economic control and non-democracy, and reduced Russia to almost Third World economic conditions and powerlessness. This was carried out under the rule of Boris Yeltsin, the "reformer," who served as a de facto U.S. agent. This was accompanied or followed by:
- the expansion of NATO to the Russian border
- the dismantling of Russia's ally Serbia
- the Bush administration's cancellation of the ABM treaty
- the building of new clients and bases in the ex-Soviet states of the south
- ABM missiles in Eastern Europe
- the arming of Georgia
Even Thomas Friedman acknowledges that the Clinton foreign policy team chose "to cram NATO expansion down the Russians' throats because Moscow is weak, and by the way, they'll get used to it" ("What Did We Expect?" August 20, 2008). But of course this doesn't cause Friedman to call the NATO program "expansionism" or "imperialism," or to explain that Putin deserves credit for finally resisting such a program that included open aggression. No, Putin still gets a "gold medal for brutish stupidity," while Clinton and Bush only get bronze for "short-sightedness." Friedman doesn't explain what Putin could have done to end the exploitation of Russian weakness, nor does he explain why the Russian attack—which the Georgians themselves claim resulted in only several hundred civilian deaths—was brutish while the U.S. attack on Iraq, with a million civilian deaths, was not designated beyond brutish and possibly genocidal.
In an Orwellian classic, Condoleezza Rice stated recently—and indignantly—that in its attack on Georgia, Russia has turned to a policy of force, which is a shocking and terrible thing in this enlightened age. "Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that's its military power. That's not the way to deal in the 21st century." As Glen Greenwald points out, she said this "with a straight face," and it elicited no mainstream media comment, which proves that U.S. officials can say anything and get away with it. Rice speaks for a government that has used and continues to use extreme force in two major wars carried out in violation of the UN Charter and which has openly claimed the right to engage in preemptive violence outside the rule of law. Rice is also famous for her apologetics for the Israeli policy of force in Lebanon in 2006 as mere "birth pangs of a new Middle East" that she did not wish to interrupt.
There is nothing new in this ultra self-deception or hypocrisy. In 1965 James Reston, the top journalist of the New York Times, asserted that we were in Vietnam to establish the principle that force doesn't pay and that "no state shall use military force or the threat of military force to achieve its political objectives." He said this in face of the fact that all knowledgeable officials and analysts recognized that the "enemy," the National Liberation Front, had mass support in South Vietnam, that our minority clique had very little and would not survive for a month without U.S. military support, and that the entire rationale of U.S. policy rested on the idea that the enemy would surrender as we escalated and put into play our massive force. (See Gareth Porter's The Perils of Dominance for a study of the genocidal U.S. use of force in Indochina.)
Aggression or Response to National Security Threat
It is amazing to watch the U.S. imperialist establishment, including the media, wax indignant about "Russian aggression," Russian "brutality," and a renewal of Russian "expansionism." This establishment can never admit its own regular, serial, and massive aggressions—the word was never used by mainstream reporters or editors to describe the attack on Vietnam, 1954-75, or Iraq in 2003 and onward. And the Iraq war has never been ascribed to a planned expansionism, although this "projection of power" in the Middle East and beyond was actually announced in advance in the Project for a New American Century's Rebuilding America's Defenses (2000) and the National Security Policy program of 2002. We may kill millions in Indochina and Iraq—including in the latter the 500,000 children's deaths from the "sanctions of mass destruction" that were "worth it" (to Madeleine Albright)—but this is not "brutal," a word used freely in the case of the hundreds killed in the Russian aggression. What this shows is that the U.S. establishment can swallow anything, no matter how outlandish, to rationalize that projection of power now built-in to the U.S. political economy. While McCain relishes it, Obama also bows down to it as he seeks electoral victory here.
We and our "defense department" are protecting U.S. "national security," according to the cliché-myth. That the electoral intervention, political capture, arming, and proposed absorption of Georgia into NATO posed a security threat to Russia was barely recognized in the West. If the Russians (or Chinese) had entered into a military alliance with Mexico, supplied it with arms and military advisors, used a Russian or Chinese version of the "National Endowment for Democracy" and other agents to bring about political change in Mexico (recall that Mexico has had a series of elections won by fraud), and perhaps put some ABMs in place to protect Mexico against a possible threat from Colombia, can you imagine the frenzy of U.S. politicos and the "free press?"
For the imperialist establishment only this country and its clients have "national security" threats. Certainly the Russians don't, even as we encircle them and arrange for ABMs on their very borders.
When it is occasionally recognized that the NATO expansion and U.S.-client status and arming of Georgia does worry Russia, this wasn't accompanied by suggestions that maybe we should lay off, withdraw, and stop trying to bully Russia (or China) into subservience. No, it was used to explain that this gave Russia an excuse to resume its expansionist ways, that is, it "gave Putin an easy excuse to exercise his iron fist" (Friedman, "What Did We Expect?", August 20).
Only Russia has bad motives. Georgia's President Saakashvili merely made a "mistake" or foolishly "baited" the Russians or the United States was careless or not very observant in failing to constrain him—but neither of them was guilty of aggression, brutality, blackmail, or expansionism.
Evasion of Georgian Initiation of the Conflict
It has been awkward for the Western establishment that Saakashvili actually began the serious conflict with a major and civilian-oriented bombardment and ground attack on Tskhinvali. The Russians didn't make the initiating move and can credibly claim to be responding to the Georgian attack. The U.S. establishment has handled this by: (1) ignoring the basic fact of Georgia's initiation; (2) ignoring the civilian-target orientation of that opening attack; (3) arguing that the Russians had provoked Georgia and deliberately sucked it into a major conflict. But none of these responses work. The first two dodge the issue completely and the third fails to explain why Saakashvili did such a seemingly self-destructive thing—and of course fails to consider the possibility that he either expected no Russian response or expected Western military support or was being used by the United States for its own ends. Whatever the answers, Georgia started the war, not Russia, and the West has had to evade and/or downplay that fact.
It is also interesting that the U.S. and EU have been completely unconcerned over Georgia's use of powerful and indiscriminate Grad missiles in the initial attack on what seems to have been strictly civilian sites in Tskinvali. In 1996 the Yugoslav Tribunal found the Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic guilty of war crimes for having used a similarly indiscriminate weapon in attacking Zagreb, a densely populated area, although he claimed to be aiming at the Ministry of Defense and Airport. But the Tribunal concluded that he was trying to terrorize the population (whereas prosecutor Carla Del Ponte found that while NATO also used cluster bombs, "There is no indication cluster bombs were used in such a fashion by NATO.") Martic was given a 35-year sentence for using cluster bombs. I think we can safely conclude that Saakashvili's use of cluster bombs will be treated like NATO's rather than Milan Martic's.
Rediscovery of the UN Charter and International Law
The UN Charter and international law come and go in the U.S. depending on whether the United States is ignoring and violating them or trying to use them for its own political ends. There could hardly be a grosser violation of both than the attack on Iraq, but there was no mention of the words "UN Charter" or "international law" in the 70 New York Times editorials on Iraq that appeared between September 11, 2001 and March 21, 2003 (Friel and Falk, Record of the Paper). The Times finally did mention international law in late March 2003 when the Iraqi government paraded several U.S. POWs on TV, assailing Iraq, but also chiding the Bush administration for neglecting that law and thereby endangering our soldiers taken prisoner abroad (ed., "Protecting Prisoners of War," March 26, 2003).
As regards Russia and Georgia, the media haven't focused explicitly on the UN Charter, but have repeatedly charged Russia with aggression, which is a fundamental UN Charter violation, as well as disproportionate violence, and failure to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. Russia's action was "brazen" aggression, but the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Israel's attack on Lebanon in 2006 were in a different category altogether, certainly not "brazen," "unacceptable," or calling for an international response. Georgia's territorial integrity "must be respected," but Yugoslavia's and Serbia's were a "special case," based on the rule of the double standard.
The first Washington Post editorial assailing Russia on Georgia stressed how wonderful that "victim" state Georgia is, one of its accomplishments being its support for "the mission in Iraq" (ed., "Stopping Russia," August 9, 2008). But the mission in Iraq to which the worthy Georgia contributed 2,000 troops was and remains a major act of aggression, which makes the Russian attack on Georgia puny by comparison, and arguably an act of self-defense, which the U.S. aggression was not. The editors of an ideological institution like the Washington Post are, of course, completely oblivious to the irony in their pat on the back for aggression-victim Georgia's support of the more massive aggression.
"Elected Democracy" Threatened
Along with the rediscovery of the importance of law and territorial integrity, so the "free world" has rushed to demand that the Russians exit quickly from Georgia, a primary objective of French President Sarkozy's quick visit to Moscow. The contrast here with Iraq is beyond dramatic—there the aggressor was quickly given Security Council sanction to stay on and when the aggression produced a remarkable resistance and resulted in the deaths of maybe a million (versus maybe 300 from the Russian attack on Georgia) and millions of refugees, there was still no demand for withdrawal, and the aggressor is now arranging for a permanent stay with "enduring bases" and oil company investment rights. But this was not "aggression" for the EU states, any more than Israel's dispossession of Palestinians is "ethnic cleansing."
Practically every article and editorial on the Russian-Georgian conflict refers to Georgia as an "elected democratic state," sometimes also a "market oriented" democracy, sometimes "allied with the Western democracies," and also "independent." And President Saakashvili is "Western educated." Also democratically elected, although his first electoral victory got him 96 percent of the vote, a number that would arouse suspicions if not won by a Western-educated leader. His electoral victory in 2004 was one of those Western-Soros-NED-CIA supported operations that would be wildly illegal if carried out from abroad in the United States. It is not Western "expansionism," however, and Russian hostility to this interventionism and the establishing of a hostile client on its border shows Russia's attempt to establish "hegemony" in the Caucasus.
A number of observers have pointed out that Saakashvili has displayed marked authoritarian tendencies. His popularity decline from 2004's 96 percent favorable vote to the present has been dramatic. In the election of 2007-2008 tens of thousands of protesters who assembled in the streets of Tbilisi demanding democratic reforms were dispersed on November 7, 2007 with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon, and truncheons, with over 600 needing medical attention. A dissident broadcasting station was raided, its equipment disabled, journalists beaten, and its operations suspended, leaving only a state-controlled TV station functioning. Two opposition leaders were accused of treason and of plotting with Russia, while two other potential contestants were eliminated from the election by legal trickery. Election observers from the OSCE raised questions about election integrity based on claims of Saakashvili's use of state money, blackmail, and vote-buying.
But none of this affects the Western media, who were enthused about the hugely corrupt Russian election of 1996 which "reformer" Yeltsin won, and even about the 1982 and 1984 elections in El Salvador, won by U.S.-approved leaders under conditions of extreme state terror. So why not enthuse about Saakashvili, a "Western-educated" and eager client and servant of a global expansionist state playing like a defender of democracy?
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