14 August 2008

What do I know?

Almost as soon as I finished my last blog post, the bullets began flying in the disputed area of South Ossetia, where Russia and Georgia had in effect shared custody. The fog of war descended rapidly--the most frequent phrases I heard on Russian television on the first day were "conflicting reports" and "we can't yet confirm"--but that cloud of unknowing didn't prevent either politicians or pundits from making definitive statements.

I'm not a politician, and I am explicitly declining to be a pundit. For one thing, I am a guest in this country, claiming that I actually care about its people and its culture; making that claim real is my highest priority. Secondly, I will not pretend to know more than I actually do, which is practically nothing.

So, despite the example set for me by many other American figures, I am not about to comment glibly on Russian politics. There are some good commentators on Russian politics, both internally and externally; Sean's Russia Blog has a good listing of diverse sources. (Believe it or not, Russians are quite capable of speaking out about the strong and weak points of their own politicians; this is not something they depend solely on foreigners to do!)

Being an American voter, I feel much more freedom to comment on American politicians and pundits, and their apparently compulsive need to posture sanctimoniously at Russia's expense. The New York Times, who collectively should certainly know better, has provided two classic examples: William Kristol's juvenile "Will Russia Get Away With It?" and this editorial. I can't believe that the following points apparently still need to be made; since they were not made persuasively within the American establishment, it was left to Russian politicians to make some of them!!!
  • First, it must be said of everyone involved, Russians and Americans and regional separatists alike: when will you ever learn to put as much effort and treasure into nonviolent solutions as you seem to be ready to put into killing? Maybe it's not surprising that someone whose church teaches peace argues for nonviolence, but just look at reality! Aside from generating untold numbers of heartbreaking individual tragedies for whom sooner or later heaven will demand an accounting, war is hideously expensive, sets off huge trains of unintended consequences, turns economies and stock markets upside down, lays the foundation for more intercommunal hatred, and causes politicians to get into the most absurd daring matches just when we need grown-up wisdom the most.

  • "Will Russia get away with it?" After an introduction that seems to imply that Russian-Georgian relations date back no further than 1921, Kristol claims that moral influence is useless with the "Vladimir Putins" of the world. By what standard, through what filter, can he make that claim? The logic for Russian behavior in recent days was explained clearly by Dmitri Medvedev last week (from memory): "Russia has been and still is the primary guarantor of peace in the Caucasus." This is not the way I would run the world, but it is the logic of empires everywhere, including the American empire of the Monroe Doctrine and its recent pre-emptive corollaries. By the standards shared among "great powers," actions taken within this logic are not examples of moral depravity.

    Kristol asks, "Surely we cannot simply stand by as an autocratic aggressor gobbles up part of--and perhaps destabilizes all of--a friendly democratic nation that we were sponsoring for NATO membership a few months ago." What kind of a friendly nation tries to resolve a longstanding dispute through unilateral military action and then attempts to drag the U.S. into the ensuing dangerous confrontation, even after being warned off this disastrous course by its American coaches? Who exactly was the source of destabilization? Did this democratic nation solicit its legislature's approval before beginning hostilities? And was the Russian response any stronger than the U.S. response would have been in an analogous situation? I am not arguing for sainthood or demonhood for anyone in particular here; I'm simply questioning as strongly as possible the tone of unreflective moral superiority pervading this argument.

    Kristol goes on: "For that matter, consider the implications of our turning away from Georgia for other aspiring pro-Western governments in the neighborhood, like Ukraine's." Exactly: consider the implications. Perhaps they would think twice before ignoring sober advice and giving into lethal expressions of nationalism. Perhaps they would put as much effort into developing a more mature relationship with the huge country right next door as they are tempted to put into exploiting their self-serving "friendships" with faraway USA. And, for that matter, maybe the USA would itself develop a more modest and constructive approach to Russia, as many American experts on Russia have been urging for years. None of these ideas depend on Russia and its leaders being perfect, but they do require abandoning the hypocrisy and cliches that dominate today's approaches.

  • The Times editorial is, if anything, even more replete with useless bluster. The crescendo comes early: "Europe and the United States must make clear to Mr. Medvedev--and the real power player, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin--that more aggression and lies will not be tolerated. They must make clear that Russia will pay a price, in diplomatic standing and economic relations, if it does not immediately withdraw its troops, agree to international mediation and permit the deployment of truly neutral international peacekeepers to Georgia’s breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia." Let's overlook the unbecoming and gratuitous slap at Medvedev (he's not the "real power player"--as if they knew!) and consider the awesome trail of assumptions: who gets to decide what is aggression, and what is a lie? Who, after all, does the not-tolerating? That kind of rhetoric is simply another invitation to confrontation, a provocation which hopefully the actual "power players" will ignore, but the rule with nations as with parents is "don't threaten what you can't--or shouldn't--carry out." What kind of a price could Russia be required to pay that will actually net out as a benefit to the world as a whole? Who is hurt more by any attempt to isolate or humiliate Russia--Russians or the world as a whole? And to what ultimate end?
Years ago, Putin criticized the U.S. pre-emptive intervention in Iraq as the international application of the law of the jungle. What if he had gone further and said, "The U.S. will pay a price, in diplomatic standing and economic relations, if it does not immediately withdraw its troops..." and so on? Would we have slunk meekly away? Or was the case for our intervening half a world away on a tissue of lies so much stronger than Russia's case for imposing its own definition of stability on its own border? Ironically, we have in fact paid massively in both international credibility and in economic stability for our Iraqi attack and occupation and related human-rights abuses, and now is precisely when that lost credibility and economic strength could have been put to good use. But by "good use" I don't mean telling the rest of the world what we will or won't tolerate within the very same patterns of behavior that we ourselves display.

Righteous links: The Pew Forum looks forward to this weekend's candidates' forum with Rick Warren. ~~ And Time paints an interesting portrait of Warren and his attempts to reframe evangelical activism--see the item in Monday Morning Insight and the magazine article itself. ~~ Edward Ericson writes about Solzhenitsyn the optimist. (Thanks to Books and Culture for the reference.) ~~ A fascinating visit with Doris Lessing. ~~ Thanks to David Finke for pointing me to the Illinois Yearly Meeting's peace resources pages, including the personal peace statements here.

By this time next week, Judy and I should be deep into our visit to Orenburg Oblast' to visit the sites of Friends' relief work of 1917-18 and the 1920's. If we can't get online there, I'll post shortly after we get back. In the meantime, feel free to fill the silence with some Taj Mahal:


djmerk said...

thanks for your thoughts johan. the rhetoric surrounding this whole thing is dizzying. i think there's plenty of stupidity going around for everyone. still, i have a hard time watching a small country invaded by a large (in all aspects) neighbor. images of fighter jets bombing civilian targets, accident or not, are...well...wrong. there may be many things that are wrong i am not seeing. but i have seen that. perhaps the best we can do is pray for everyone involved.

Johan said...

There are no angels in this picture, that's for sure! I'm not arguing that anyone has acted with pure wisdom, including Russia. But fairness demands we at least give them a hearing, and weigh their stated rationale by the same standards used by our own government. Those standards universally fail the morality test of the New Testament, unfortunately.

Speaking of fairness, many people have pointed out that if Russia really wanted to reconquer Georgia, that could have been accomplished easily by now.

It is great to hear from you!!

Ricky said...

I'm amazed how many times a day I have to point up at the bumper sticker I have pasted on the wall of my cubicle:

"For every difficult and complicated question there is an answer that is simple, easily understood and wrong" H.L. Mencken

Chris M. said...

Thank you for your thoughtful commentary, as usual, Johan. I'd nominate you for the Punditry if I could.

You wrote: "It is the logic of empires everywhere, including the American empire of the Monroe Doctrine and its recent pre-emptive corollaries. By the standards shared among 'great powers,' actions taken within this logic are not examples of moral depravity."

I humbly disagree, based on reading too many books by Noam Chomsky back in the day. By the standards shared among great powers, anything that a rival does to undermine or call into question one's own power is inherently immoral, by definition. Whether or not one's own practices are the same as the rival's is not a relevant data point. It may be a "double standard" but it is a consistent standard. Hence the bluster you've identified.