Saturday, November 6, 2010

Response to Walter Russell Mead's Blog Post "Georgia in the Crosshairs"

On October 28, 2010, the post entitled "Georgia in the Crosshairs" appeared on the blog of prominent American historian Walter Russell Mead [photo on the right courtesy of Pew Research Center website] at the website of The American Interest magazine. Apparently Mead recently traveled to Georgia, where he read lectures and had meetings in academic and government circles. Mead's previous blog posts on Georgia you can find here and here. Here is my response to Mead, which was also posted on his blog:

This post proves and exemplifies the frequent fallacy committed by Western social scientists with pompous academic credentials, who think they can become experts on Georgia and the Transcaucasus region after just one or two visits. The American nationalist, revisionist historian Walter Russell Mead is no exception to this rule. Of course, it would have been much better for him to stick to what he knows how to distort and embellish the best – namely the history of Anglo-American accomplishments. But academic figures of his stature are often characterized by such oversized egos that they are sure that their reputation is unassailable. The response below only partly aims to dispel this egotistical self-perception. It is largely intended to rebut some of Mead’s most ostentatious claims and factually incorrect observations.

In Mead’s highly amateur hodgepodge of facts, myths, truths, half-truths, unexamined assumptions and sweeping generalizations disguised as an authoritative crash course on Georgia, particular emphasis is placed on the incompetence, unpredictability and impulsiveness of the Georgian ruling elite as personified by the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili. To recap Mead’s argument – bad decisions by the Georgian government produced “trust deficit” in European capitals and Washington and now Tbilisi is destined to linger in the dangerous geopolitical limbo, wherein it has no choice but to exercise “strategic patience” and to conduct modest foreign policy entirely subservient to American interests in the Caucasus region and vis-à-vis Russia. This, Mead argues, will hopefully, at some indefinite point, lead to closer relationship (but no membership) with European Union and perhaps better chances (but highly unlikely) at being considered for NATO membership. What a bright perspective indeed.

First of all, since the August 2008 war blaming all of Georgia’s misfortunes on the Georgian government has become a favorite pastime of many European and some American analysts, observers, experts as well as government officials. Pointing out real and perceived drawbacks of the Georgian decision makers in reality masks the inability and unwillingness of the American and European political establishment to do anything about Russia’s aggressive policy towards those post-Soviet countries that lean in the Western direction. Growing strategic dependence on Russia in Afghanistan further complicates and actually precludes any meaningful Western response in this regard. The result of this sad state of affairs has been the marked increase of Russian influence across the post-Soviet space.

Ukraine is the best case in point because anyone, who is even remotely familiar with current developments in that important country, has plenty to worry about because the Kremlin-friendly government of President Viktor Yanukovich has been systematically eroding the democratic achievements of the Orange Revolution. Moreover, following direct orders from Moscow Yanukovich now began to develop relations with world’s rogue authoritarian leaders as evidenced by the recent visit to Kyiv by the virulently anti-American leader of Venezuela Hugo Chavez.

In Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, the contours of the unequal and awkward Russo-American geopolitical condominium are beginning to materialize. Regardless of flowering rhetoric of official pronouncements, statements and speeches to the contrary, at the center of the American approach (because reactive positioning cannot be called policy) to Kyrgyzstan remains the uninterrupted operation of the Manas Transit Center. However, it is an open secret that the Kremlin exerts significant influence over Kyrgyz political circles and any decision on Manas will be taken only with Moscow’s approval. The success of the parliamentary model in Kyrgyzstan, which is espoused by the Obama administration, is far from assured considering Russian determination to keep American influence there checked at all times.

This brings us to Georgia. It is clear that in the context of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, Georgia has become an inconvenient ally. The current U.S. approach to Georgia is predicated on the repetition of the familiar mantra of respect to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which does not really oblige Washington to do anything to change the untenable status quo there. This approach can be otherwise crudely summed up in a pithy American expression – words don’t cost a thing.

To be sure, in exchange for the generous diplomatic and financial support from Washington, Tbilisi, as a stalwart American ally, does what it can. Georgia’s contribution to the fledgling mission in Afghanistan is certainly appreciated by the U.S. and NATO officials, but apparently disregarded by Mead, who never mentions it in his meandering screed. Similarly the close bilateral cooperation in the counter-proliferation area that yielded the arrest and transfer to the United States of Amir Hossein Ardebili, one of the key Iranian arms dealers responsible for procurement abroad of weapons and dual-use items for Iranian armed forces, also somehow escaped Mead’s attention. It should be noted here that the Iranian government exerted significant pressure on Georgia to release Ardebili, but Tbilisi refused and risked angering Tehran. As a matter of fact, this individual was of such importance to Tehran’s clerical regime that during the official visit to Iran last year the Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze reportedly apologized to the Iranians for the Ardebili affair. Perhaps Mead would learn a thing or two by reading the most comprehensive and richly detailed account of the Operation Shakespeare, which was compiled by the investigative reporter John Shiffman and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in September.

Second, with no apparent knowledge of the developments preceding the August 2008 war Mead asserts that Georgia pursued “reckless and aggressive policies toward Russia in the summer of 2008.” Had he read the relevant parts of the report prepared by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (more frequently referred to as simply Tagliavini Report for the name of the Swiss diplomat, Heidi Tagliavini, who chaired the mission), he would have known that the Russian-Georgian war was preceded by the pattern of escalating tensions in which the Georgian-populated villages in South Ossetia were subjected to the increasing small arms fire and shelling by the South Ossetian separatist paramilitary forces.

Moreover, in the unlikely chance Mead would want to venture to examine the events that transpired in the spring of 2008, he will discover that with some support from Germany and active participation and mediation of the then Georgian Ambassador to UN, Irakli Alasania, the Georgian side approached the Abkhaz with the proposition that envisioned the partition of the territory of Abkhazia in return for the recognition of its independence. However, due to the pressure from Russia the Abkhaz rejected the partition proposal, which envisioned the reintegration of the Georgian-populated Gali region into Georgia in exchange for Tbilisi’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence.

With regard to the warnings from the Bush administration not to antagonize Russia, Mead ought to consider the official visit to Georgia by the then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in July of 2008, less than a month before the beginning of hostilities in South Ossetia. Just as the Georgian airspace was being violated by the Russian aircraft, Secretary Rice casually assured the Georgian President: “We always fight for our friends.” In hindsight not the best choice of words given the extremely charged atmosphere on the eve of the conflict in which misperceptions and misinterpretations could have happened easily. In general, the deliberations on the American side prior, during and after the August war are meticulously described by Ronald Asmus in his seminal study A Little War that Shook the World.

Third, Mead expresses concern over the Georgian government’s decision to introduce the visa-free regime for the residents of the North Caucasus partly because he is concerned for the safety of the American expats living and working in Georgia and partly because such a move would irritate Russians. What Mead fails to realize is that the aforementioned decision serves Georgia’s long-term national interests in that volatile region. The best way to promote people-to-people interaction is to have a visa-free regime. The improvement of relations with the North Caucasian neighbors, over time, will have a positive impact on Georgia’s image among them. Developing good neighborly relations with the North Caucasian republics is of utmost importance to Georgia. Tbilisi remembers all too well what the neglect of this region produced in the early 1990s when, on the wave of separatist conflicts in Georgia, the North Caucasus region was permeated by the anti-Georgian sentiments. In presuming that all North Caucasians willing to take advantage of the visa-free regime are rebels or are somehow connected to them Mead commits another ignorant mistake, which actually borders on ethnic prejudice, the kind that is popular in certain Russian circles.

Fourth, by the time the doors of NATO may finally open for Georgia in accordance with the Bucharest summit commitments, the alliance may cease to exist altogether. Mead would hopefully benefit from reading about NATO’s inconsistent enlargement policy, diminished internal cohesion and inadequate military spending in this article.

The problems within NATO are manifest and they go beyond the apt typology of “Old” vs. “New” Europe introduced by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, they are perhaps the most painfully manifested in disagreements over Afghanistan and mandatory defense expenditures. Another area of constant tensions within the alliance is represented by the topic of contingency planning. For many representatives of “New” Europe in the alliance, who began to feel uneasy over Article V (collective defense) in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war this issue became extremely important. The Baltic States in particular felt defenseless and they insisted and belatedly received some assurance in the form of military exercises, which were most recently held in Latvia last month. Similar concern by Poland had to be allayed by the deployment of the Patriot missile battery and limited U.S. contingent there, which serves very little military purpose, but has tremendous political and symbolic significance.

Irrespective of what will be decided at the approaching Lisbon summit, in the context of the global economic crisis some NATO member-states intend to significantly reduce their military expenditures as part of the austerity measures. The recently brokered Anglo-French defense agreements are basically creative cost-cutting mechanisms, which make sense between the two highly compatible military force structures. However, it is easy to see in the medium- to long-run that unsustainable social welfare systems of European NATO members will invariably lead to more defense cuts to the detriment of the alliance. Therefore, while searching for external security guarantees will remain a top priority for Georgia, NATO may not be the only available option.

Finally, perhaps the only thing about which Mead is right is in pointing out that the Georgians should learn to be far more circumspect with regard to voicing their preferences between the Democratic or Republican parties. The Democratic Party has a long memory and in many ways the current Georgian government is still wrongly viewed by many party insiders and heavyweights as the neoconservative experiment closely associated with the Bush administration and its democracy promotion in the post-Soviet space. Overcoming this bias will not be easy, but it is not impossible. Georgians are not that beholden to illusions as it may seem at first glance by Mead. Many centuries of survival against the overwhelming odds taught them to be pragmatic and to balance the interests of other, more powerful players. Most recent confirmation of the latter was the official visit to Tbilisi by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki this past Wednesday.

To Mead there is only this left to say – thanks for nothing. Your demagogic admonition to Georgia, its people and its leaders can be summed up in the following funny and bitter title of the article, which appeared on August 25, 2008 in the popular American satirical magazine The Onion: “U.S. Advises Allies Not To Border Russia.” Such advice is not worth a dime and you ought to keep it to yourself.

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