Up until now, this war was framed as a simple tale of Good Helpless Democratic Guy Georgia versus Bad Savage Fascist Guy Russia. In fact, it is far more complex than this, morally and historically. Then there are two concentric David and Goliath narratives here. The initial war pitted the Goliath Georgia–a nation of 4.4 million, with vastly superior numbers, equipment and training thanks to US and Israeli advisers–against David-Ossetia, with a population of between 50,000-70,000 and a local militia force that is barely battalion strength. Reports coming out of South Ossetia tell of Georgian rockets and artillery leveling every building in the capital city, Tskhinvali, and of Georgian troops lobbing grenades into bomb shelters and basements sheltering women and children. Although true casualty figures are hard to come by, reports that up to 2,000 Ossetians, mostly civilians, were killed are certainly believable, given the intensity of the initial Georgian bombardment, the wanton destruction of the city and surrounding regions and the generally savage nature of Caucasus warfare, a very personal game where old rules apply.
But you don’t hear about this story from the Western media. Indeed, you hear little if anything about the Ossetians, who seem to hardly exist in the West’s eyes, even though their grievance is the root cause of this war.
While Bush and McCain speak of Saakashvili as if he’s a combination of Thomas Jefferson and Nelson Mandela, he’s seen by his own people as increasingly authoritarian and unbalanced. Last year, Saakashvili sent in his special forces to violently disperse opposition protesters in the capital city, followed by a declaration of martial law. He sacked the opposition television station (partly owned by Rupert Murdoch), exiled or jailed his political opponents, and stacked the courts with his own judges while removing neutral observers, leaving even onetime neocon cheerleaders like Bruce Jackson and Anne Applebaum feeling queasy.
In fact, one of the most effective ways America could respond to this crisis is by rethinking its entire geopolitical approach of the past two decades, which has been hegemonic, arrogant, hypocritical and reckless. If we set a better example, then we could at least reclaim the moral authority, or “soft power,” that we once had.
Instead, we’ve left the world other more brutal lessons about geopolitical power and how to use it, and the Russians are showing they’ve learned from us well.