“As if South Ossetia and Abkhazia do not in themselves even exist”

The Ossetians are slowly creeping into view, though the articles highlighting their history, plight, and desire for self-determination are still relegated to the journalistic periphery.  One article to recenter the Ossetian (and also Abkhaz) problem is Donald Rayfield’s “The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation” on OpenDemocracy.net. Rayfield opens with a point that I made a few days ago.  Namely,

Much of the media reporting of the “short and nasty war” has been strong and detailed, with a good dose of scepticism in questioning the tendentious (and often downright mendacious) versions of events relayed by Russian and Georgians spokespersons alike. This is in contrast to the lack of attention among commentators to the essential task of exploring the roots of the conflict; indeed, a lot of the opinion-flood persists in ignoring completely the local and regional factors in favour of an instant resort to high geopolitics, as if South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which lie at the heart of what has happened – do not in themselves even exist. [Emphasis mine]

When the Ossetians and Abkhazians at the center, the answer to the problem is clear: recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s right of self-determination, whether that be independence or integration into Russia.

To get there, however, Rayfield suggests that the Georgians come to grip with the idea that losing South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not the end of the world.

Sadly, rationality and nationalism rarely mix well.  When he came to power in 2003, Saakashvili put taming Georgia’s separatist regions at the center of his populist nationalism.  It didn’t take him long to begin putting pressure on both Ossetia and Akhazia to comply.  Under the auspicious of “decriminalizing” both regions of smuggling, corruption, and gang-like rule, Saakashvili ordered his navy to down all foreign ships (i.e. Russian) heading for Abkhazia and replaced his border police with US-trained Georgian troops, who quickly began trading small arms fire with Ossetian militias.  As the New York Times‘ C. J. Chivers noted in August 2004, critics were already saying that Saakashvili’s antics were “showing his inexperience and flirting with war.” One wonders where such criticism in the Western press is now.

Or as Mark Ames says in his most recent article in the Nation,

At the root of this conflict is a clash of two twentieth-century guiding principles in international relations. Georgia, backed by the West, is claiming its right as a sovereign nation to control the territory within its borders, a guiding principle since World War II. The Ossetians are claiming their right to self-determination, a guiding principle since World War I.

These two guiding concepts for international relations–national sovereignty and the right to self-determination–are locked in a zero-sum battle in Georgia. Sometimes, the West takes the side of national sovereignty, as it is in the current war; other times, it sides with self-determination and redrawing of national borders, such as with Kosovo.

In that 1999 war, the United States led a nearly three-month bombing campaign of Serbia in order to rescue a beleaguered minority, the Albanians, and carve out a new nation. Self-determination trumped national sovereignty, over the objections of Russia, China and numerous other countries.

Why, Russians and Ossetians (not to mention separatist Abkhazians in Georgia’s western region) ask, should the same principle not be applied to them?

It should but it’s not. What the Ossentians, Abkhazians and Russians have gotten in response is the worse chest pounding, slander, and great power blustering from the United States.  The best example of this is Bush’s feeble attempt at continued relevancy by spouting tired rhetoric about how “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.” “Only Russia can decide whether it will now put itself back on the path of responsible nations or continue to pursue a policy that promises only confrontation and isolation,” he continued. Russia’s response? Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the Americans had to chose between have a “real partnership” with Russia or a virtual one with Georgia.

The funny thing is that so much of this conflict has simply existed on the virtual plane.  How people saw the war was skillfully crafted by their specific culture industry. Each side, whether it be the Russian or the Western press created its own villains, victims, historical parallels, and defense of grand historical ideas.  The South Ossetian war was as much, if not more, about narrative than it was about bullets and bombs. The universal opinion is that Russia lost this war of narratives. Yasha Levine put it best in his analysis on the Exiled.

Even the most cursory look at this conflict shows that Georgia’s attack was an almost perfect textbook example of how modern warfare should be fought on the information front. The Georgians showed an amazing grasp of Info Ops concepts, pulling off counterpropaganda, launching disinformation campaigns and manipulating media perceptions as if they did this type of thing every day.

Oh, the Russians tried to do their part, too. But it still isn’t clear if they didn’t give a shit about what the world thought or just failed miserably. Either way, it was bad news for the Kremlin. Despite a military victory, they are going to have a heard time getting the world to go along with their plans for post-war Georgia. All because they failed to win over the hearts and minds of the world community. The Georgians knew the importance of a well-defined information war strategy. That’s because Georgia has had ample training by the masters of this art: America and Israel.

Saakashvili turned out to be a master at manipulating American narcissism.  Perhaps his time at Columbia Law School taught him that Americans only react to codes.  For example, in his “exclusive” interview with CNN on August 8, Saakashvili repeatedly said he loved freedom and democracy:

“We are right now suffering because we want to be free and we want to be a democracy multi-ethnic democracy that belongs to all ethnic groups and that’s exactly what’s happening there. So, basically, I have to – I mean, it’s not about Georgia anymore, it’s about America, its values. You know, I went to two U.S. universities. I always taught that these values were also those of my own. We have held them not because we love America although I do love America, but because we love freedom. And the point here is that I also taught that America also stands up for those free-loving nations and supports them.”

“We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack.”

His 13 August interview on CNN, he laid the freedom on even thicker.  He said the word “free” or “freedom” seven times.  He also dropped “democracy” seven times. Perhaps this is why people like CNN’s Glenn Beck are so apt to believe after talking with Saakashvili for 30 minutes that “This is for America. This is for NATO. This is for Bush” was written on the Russian bombs falling on Georgia.  Beck is an utter boob.  And Saakashvili, well, he should get a fucking Oscar.

One can tell how effective freedom and democracy rhetoric is just by looking how American politicians deploy it themselves.  If you can make the conflict about America, its people, and its values, the public will respond.  This is why John McCain told a crowd in Pennsylvania that “Today, we are all Georgians.”  This is why In Colorado, he said that he wanted to avoid any armed conflict with Russia, “but,” he emphasized, “we have to stand up for freedom and democracy as we did in the darkest days.”

McCain’s blustering has paid off politically.  The New York Times, in an application of the “Rolled up sleeves theory,” noted that McCain displayed his “foreign policy credentials,” while Barack Obama “seemed to fade from the scene while on his secluded vacation.”  Now American liberals are scrambling out of fear that McCain’s get tough on Russia stance will give him a bump in the polls.

But the narcissism on display is not simply relegated to Bush, McCain, or the American voter as such.  American liberals, who pride themselves on seeing through the smoke and mirrors of the propaganda state, are no less myopic.  Once upon a time, national self-determination was a principle of the American liberal left. National liberation movements were mark of internationalism and solidarity.

Now those days are long gone and anti-imperialism has faded from the American liberal doxa. Now, they are probably the most egregiously narcissistic bunch that are so steeped in their own “it’s all about me” mentality. They call for the better management of empire rather than its ultimate dismantle.  But what do you expect from liberalism?  The South Ossetian War can’t be about well, the Ossetians  and the Abkhazians (Who are they anyway?).  Their struggles, desires, and agency doesn’t just has to, they must be a metynom for a much wider issue:  American hegemony?  Oil? Iran? McCain-Obama?  Make your pick.  Because, if the South Ossetians and Abkhazians can’t be molded into a reflection of one of a liberal cause, they might as well not exist.  To not do this would require American liberals to actually realize that there is a world out there that isn’t a simple reflection of their values and concerns.

Instead, the South Ossetian and Abkhazian right of self-determination is erased in favor of some grand scheme of American Empire.  Take for example, the Nation‘s Robert Sheer’s speculation that the Georgian War was some kind of neocon conspiracy, an October Surprise to influence the American Presidential Election. The logic is beautiful in its simplicity. Randy Scheunemann is McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser.  He previously served as a lobbyist for the Georgian government.  Scheunemann is also a neocon who championed the invasion of Iraq.  Connect the dots people.  Sheer does

There are telltale signs that he played a similar role in the recent Georgia flare-up. How else to explain the folly of his close friend and former employer, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in ordering an invasion of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which clearly was expected to produce a Russian counter-reaction. It is inconceivable that Saakashvili would have triggered this dangerous escalation without some assurance from influential Americans he trusted, like Scheunemann, that the United States would have his back.

Why did the US want a Russian counteraction? American needs a new enemy.  A good enemy.  Not one that hides in caves, blows himself up, and wreaks havoc in failed states with no targets.  There’s nothing photogenic in all that. Perhaps this is why all the war on terror films have fallen so flat in the box office.  Perhaps this is why there is no Rambo for this war.  Even liberals need a simple, flat binaried world of “us” and “US” to make their unfettered political way in an otherwise complex world.

So for Sheer, the Georgia Crisis has been about us from the very get go.  Or if you listen to Michael Klare, it’s “South Ossetia: It’s the oil, stupid.” Or if you really want a duesy, read Frank Shaeffer, who says that Russia actions in Georgia “is the slow-motion counterattack of the Orthodox world against the West’s latest crusade. Georgia is just a symbol for the counter-punch to the modern version of the West’s sack of Constantinople in 1204.” What? He’s kidding right? The fact that Georgia is also an Orthodox country (he admits this) doesn’t seem to matter.

Clearly, South Ossetian and Abkhazian bodies don’t matter unless they are used as canvas for sketching out larger and more sinister political designs. Someone should have done the decent thing and sent them the memo. No matter, the cultural industry and its managers will write them in as necessary. Or not.