'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Note on the Conflict in the Caucasus 

The Russians have won a decisive victory in Georgia, one that will probably lead to the removal of the Georgian president by either the Russians or the Georgian populace. It is a huge defeat for the US, NATO and Israel. They sought to transform Georgia into a sort of Israel of the Caucasus, a country that would enforce the edicts of the US throughout the region.

The Russians have mercilessly exposed this lunatic scheme, and no amount of belligerent bleating by Bush and Cheney can revive it. From a tactical standpoint, it is a positive development for the global left. A US military outpost of the "war on terror" has been overrun, an outpost created for the actual purpose of extending the reach of a neoliberal capitalist order with global aspirations.

But how should the left understand this situation within the context of American social and political life? The conflict has highlighted four disturbing trends. First, and most importantly, it has exposed the hyperaggressiveness of US foreign policy, a foreign policy that increasingly relies upon militarism and threats of force to achieve its objectives. Of course, this is nothing new, it has been a primary feature of US policy since 9/11, but the Georgian situation demonstrates that such aggressiveness has become not only entrenched but emboldened.

The US has been directly involved in two wars that it has lost, Afghanistan and Iraq, armed Israel and diplomatically supported it during a 2006 conflict in Lebanon that killed over 1,300 Lebanese civilians, armed the Fatah faction in Gaza and the West Bank in a low intensity conflict with Hamas, and now, armed and trained, along with Israel, the Georgian military for battle with the Russians. This is an extremely serious escalation, as the US either approved the action in advance or failed to deter Georgian preparations by informing the Russians of the planned assault.

Accordingly, the competition between the US and the Russian Federation in the Caucasus and Central Asia crossed the line from being diplomatic and economic in nature to militaristic when Georgian forces leveled Tskhinvali. I therefore believe, as I said on Friday, that there is a much greater likelihood of a major global conflict in the next decade or so.

The second trend is interwoven with the first one: the enthusiastic willingness of US media to promote the jingoism of the government. Most news accounts invariably deemphasized the fact that the Georgians had started the war by using force in South Ossetia to indiscriminately kill civilians in Tskhinvali and, if one believes Putin, other villages as well. Instead, reporters displayed the significantly lesser deaths of Georgians front and center, along with alarm about the disproportionate use of force by the Russians. Quite amazing, especially when one recalls the media tolerance for about three weeks of sustained Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanese infrastructure and South Beirut neighborhoods in 2006 because two soldiers had been kidnapped. And then, there's Iraq, but we don't really need to go there, do we?

The implications are serious here as well. Some people may have mistaken the mea culpas of media sources responsible for the dissemination of propaganda about Iraq's non-existent WMDs as an indication that they will be more objective next time round. Biased coverage of the dispute between the US and Iran over Iran's nuclear research program should have dispelled such a belief, but, if not, the current reflexive anti-Russian response conclusively eliminates any remaining doubt. I predict that, during the next war involving the US, the media will generate stories in support of the government even more credulously than it did in 2003. We may even experience deliberate disruption of the Internet by the government and its transnational allies to prevent the distribution of information that contradicts the official line.

Third, as with Iran, there is no viable electoral alternative for people who are genuinely frightened by this violent foreign policy. Obama echoed McCain's machismo towards the Russians sotto vocce. After a cursory search of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, I was unable to find any congressional Democratic response at all. This is not surprising, as few elected political figures are courageous enough to confront the bellicosity of US policy around the world. Once US bombs start raining on Iran, Pakistan, or even, heaven forbid, Georgia, they will form a line to step to the microphone to fervently embrace the new conflict. As I have said here several times in the year or so, the only remaining institution constraints against US militarism are, paradoxically, officers within the US military itself.

Lastly, there is the question of the American populace. Does it support these dangerous policies? If not, is it possible that public opposition could prompt a change in direction away from the reflexive use of force? While I don't believe that most Americans support these policies, primarily because most know little, if any, about them, I doubt that they possess either the willingness or the capability to force the government to pull back from the brink.

Most Americans now live atomized lives, separated from any meaningful political engagement. If they have any interest at all, they are prone to accepting the media characterization of events, such as the portrayal of the war in Georgia, not necessarily because they are bellicose, racist or xenophobic, but, rather, because adoption of the mainstream media perspective constitutes a safe harbor of conformity, as does the more common pose of ignorant disinterest. To engage these subjects would require them to confront something quite frightening, their political powerlessnes in a society where consumerism has severed the bonds of community involvement.

Everyone knows how to find the best deal at Costco or Target, but very few understand how to make contacts and politically organize in an attempt to influence policy. It is difficult even at the local level, and almost impossible when the issue is national or international in scope. Furthermore, they perceive institutions with people that have such skills as discredited, with labor unions being the most well known example. The exception is when the issue directly involves the family. The most vociferous opponents of the war in Iraq have been veterans, members of their families and families of children, with the parents fearful that their military will somehow persuade their child to volunteer when they aren't around.

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