The media’s chosen narrative on the conflict in the Caucuses, is that Georgia is the victim of unwarranted agression by Russia. Putin and his oligarchy are flexing their muscles, and the war in Iraq has meant that the USA looks hypocritical when it condemns Russia’s military incursions. Meanwhile, the Right-wing media in America are enjoying re-playing the cold war, casting Russia as a marauding menace.
But then ‘second-day’ stories appear – about alleged atrocities comitted by Georgia in South Ossetia. Saakashvili is no saint. Over at the Progress blog, Stan Rosenthal suggests that Russia was right to come to the aid of the suppressed Ossetians.
This, however, seems to be going to far:
The Georgians have now reaped the whirlwind of what they had sown … I have no sympathy whatsoever for them.
This seems to be falling into a similar rhetorical trap that ensnared a lot of the commentary regarding Israel’s bombardment of the Lebanon in 2006 – the base need to take sides. Then, we saw the uneasy spectacle of people glorifying the Hezbollah’s ‘repulsion’ of Israel. Then, we heard people arguing that Israel’s right to defend itself some how justified collective punishment of the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon. We make similar mental calculations when considering the current conflict in Georgia: We need to make sense of it all, and for this we feel the need to establish who is in the right, and then scramble for the moral high-ground. But in both examples, it may actually be that both sides are wrong.
A second trap is to equate the citizens with the decision-makers. It is Georgia’s political class who have sown the seeds of the conflict, but it is Georgia’s peasants who are suffering as a result.
I don’t suppose making these distinctions really helps those under attack, or who have been killed or displaced. But it does imply that a pragmatic solution may be the best option. Wars usually occur when the chance to make a moral case has been bypassed, forfeited, lost. Forging a quick compromise will undoubtedly leave many with the sense that injustice has prevailed… but I would argue that purely in humanitarian terms, any cease-fire is better than none.
In an OpenDemocracy article The Miscalculation of Small Nations, Fred Halliday makes this point in more detail:
Where Georgia itself is concerned, the lesson can be summed up in a phrase: pity (and of course help) the Georgians, but condemn their leaders. For if most western governments and commentators have focused on the high politics and historical echoes of the conflict – from Russia’s excessive military response to the implications for Georgia’s entry into Nato, from the role of the United States to echoes of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1968 – less attention than is warranted has been paid to Tbilisi’s contribution to the disaster.
He also discusses the narrow nationalism which is a cause of the conflict.