The Empire Strikes Back
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 20, 2008
The era of America as the world's hegemon came to a dramatic end with the Russian invasion of Georgia on August 6. Many in the West –– including a significant swath of American elites –– had convinced themselves over the past eight years that America and its cowboy president are the greatest threat to the world order. They may now have occasion to quickly reconsider that wisdom and find themselves longing for the days of American hegemony.
The alternative to a world in which America is the dominant superpower, it turns out, is not one where all disputes are submitted for peaceful resolution around U.N. conference tables and international treaties cheerfully abided by all. Rather it is one of a resurgent Russia capable of acting far more swiftly and with greater determination and ruthlessness than the United States could ever muster.
We have been brought back to the world described by the Athenian ambassador to the island of Melos in which "the strong take what they may; the weak grant what they must." The strong in this case were the Russians; the weak, not only Georgia but the entire West, with which Georgia had aligned itself.
In an August 15 piece in the Wall Street Journal, former chess great Gary Kasporov attributed the Rusian invasion to nearly a decade of Western helplessness and delusion, during which Putin learned that he could get away with anything – murdering journalists both at home and abroad, controlling the press, banning opposition parties – without consequence. He was still treated as one of the boys at the G-8 meetings of leading industrial democracies and Western leaders vied to be his business partner.
Many interested parties will draw their conclusions from the belated and tepid response of the United States and the West to the Russian invasion. The United States Defense Department was still denying that the Russians had moved beyond South Ossetia, whose defense was the ostensible cause of the Soviet invasion, even as journalists in Gori were being shelled. That denial served to justify inaction.
The Russians will conclude that they hold most of the trump cards in any future confrontation with the West, at least within what they view as their traditional sphere of influence. And those within that sphere – Ukraine, the former Baltic Republics, and Poland were also paying careful attention to the support that they can count on for their democratic aspirations if they run afoul of the Russians.
For the time being, the heads of these countries rushed to Georgia in a show of solidarity. And Poland even agreed to position American anti-missile defenses on its territory after a year of dithering. But they will surely not make the mistake of Georgian president Mikael Saakashvilli of provoking Russian ire. Just as poisoning a few journalists is sufficient to intimidate the rest so Russia needed only invade one former republic to intimidate the rest.
Europe, which was already heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil is now even more so. The only westbound natural gas and oil from the Central Asia republics that does not flow directly from Russia passes in pipelines via Georgia to Turkey. The vulnerability of those pipelines is now clear.
That does not mean that the West should have gone to war on Georgia's behalf. Georgia's president was repeatedly warned not to swallow the Russian bait and respond militarily to ethnic-Russian separatists in South Ossetia. He himself should have realized that the United States, already overextended militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, would not confront the Russians on the latter's own borders. And certainly the Europeans, who have been following a policy akin to unilateral disarmament for decades and who are heavily dependent on Russia for their natural gas and oil would not rush to their side.
But the West must stop acting as if Russia holds all the aces. Should Putin try to force the resignation of Saakashvilli and the installation of a Russian-puppet government as a condition for Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory, there are a number of steps that the West could take. Among those enumerated by Charles Krauthamer are: disbanding the G-8 and reconstituting it as the original G-7, make clear to Russia that it will not be be permitted to join the World Trade Organization, announce a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, near Georgia's borders, and make clea r that the West will recognize a Georgian government-in-exile under Saakashvilli.
The Russian invasion at least has the virtue of clarifying the nature of Putin's Russia. She is not about to become an international good citizen. At a time of tremendous prosperity at home, Putin willingly risked Russia's international standing to put Georgia in its place. In the process, he revealed the seething resentments in Russia over the dismemberment of the former Soviet Empire in 1989.
Not by accident does a portrait of Peter the Great hang in Putin's office or did he once declare the dissolution of the Soviet Empire the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Richard Pipes, the great historian of Russia, always insisted of viewing the Soviet Union through the lens of Czarist imperialism, and the template still fits today.
One explanation given for the muted American response was the Bush administration's hope of still bringing Russia on board for harsher sanctions against Iran. But that was always a fool's hope. Russia, according to Michael McFaul of the Hoover Instititute at Stanford University, has been basically stringing along the West for 12 years, since it built Iran's first heavy water nuclear facility.
For Putin, America remains the great Satan, responsible for Russia's humiliating loss of empire and for having rubbed it's collective nose in that humiliation in recent years by pushing NATO to Russia's very borders. It will do everything it can to make life difficult for the United States (and by extension its chief ally in the Middle East) just as it did in the Soviet era. That means support overt or tacit support for both Iran and Syria.
The tepid American response to Russia's renewed aggression likely brings down the curtain on the Bush presidency, which concludes more with a whimper than a bang. President Bush seems to have largely accepted the common wisdom that his eight years have been a disaster for America. In his last year in office, he has made no effort to defend his record and achievements. Instead he has disappeared from sight. And even when he is seen, it is usually in a ceremonial role: He was busy chatting with the U.S. beach volleyball team in China, as the Russians were crossing into Georgia.
Worse, his policies have too frequently appeared to accept the narrative of his critics. He has permitted Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to devote the major part of her time to a reprise of the failed Mideast peacemaking of Bill Clinton's last year. And it now seems that he will leave the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran to his successor.
If anything good came out of the Russian invasion, it was making more likely that Bush's successor will be John McCain. The discovery that the world is still a dangerous place will cause many Americans to reconsider their support for a novice about whom they know little and who in turn appears to know little about the world.
Senator Obama interrupted his Hawaii vacation, at news of the invasion, to call for all sides to show restraint. His instinctive response is invariably to call for restraint on all sides without entering into the rights and wrongs of the situation. The inadequacy of this automatic"Boys, can't we just talk about this" response is that it has nothing to offer when one of the combatants doesn't want to be reasonable but only to protect what it perceives as its vital interests, in whatever manner it can.
Just as McCain proved prescient about the surge in Iraq, so too did he show a clearer grasp of the nature of Putin. He was already on record as recommending a return to the G-7 format. While President Bush was famously looking into Putin's soul and finding someone with he could do business, McCain remarked dryly that when he looked at Putin he always saw the initials KGB. In his first response to the crisis, he demonstrated that he not only knew where Georgia is but also a clear grasp of the geopolitical implications and the main players.
Perhaps it is a good thing that Americans discovered that they still live in a dangerous world before they go to the polls to choose their next president.
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