Getting Georgia's War On

The outbreak of war in Georgia on Friday offers a disturbing and somewhat surreal taste of what to expect from John McCain should he become our nation's Commander in Chief. As the centuries-old ethnic animosities between Georgia and Ossetia boiled over into another armed conflict, drawing in neighboring Russia, McCain issued a stark-raving statement from Des Moines that is disturbingly reminiscent of the language used in the lead-up to NATO's war against Yugoslavia in 1999, a war McCain zealously pushed for:

"We should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia's security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation," McCain said.

Calling on NATO to "stabilize this dangerous situation" is not going down well with Russia, where images of dead Russian peacekeepers and of frightened Ossetian refugees streaming across its borders have put the country in a very vengeful mood. It's hard to imagine what measures NATO could take under a McCain presidency, but in the mind of a man who thinks US troops should stay in Iraq for 100 years, and who runs around singing "Bomb Bomb Iran!" it's not hard to guess--and even harder not to be horrified by what it may mean come January 2009, should he win.

McCain's call to NATO-ize the war is not only frightening, it's also delusional: both NATO and US forces are already stretched beyond the breaking point, even by Joint Chief of Staff chairman Michael Millen's own recent assessment.

But McCain's brain remains undeterred by reality, a fact that became painfully clear today in Des Moines when he also demanded, "The US should immediately convene an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to call on Russia to reverse course."

The problem with McCain's bold demand about going to the UN is that Russia already tried doing exactly what McCain called for--and got rejected by McCain's neocon pals in the Bush Administration. Early this morning, Russia convened an emergency session of the UN Security Council, calling on both sides to immediately cease hostilities, return to the negotiating table and renounce the use of force--but the last part about renouncing the use of force is exactly what Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili refuses to do.

The Bush Administration showed that it too has no patience with crunchy "renounce the use of force" resolutions. According to a Reuters report from earlier in the day:

At the request of Russia, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session in New York but failed to reach consensus early Friday on a Russian-drafted statement.

The council concluded it was at a stalemate after the United States, Britain and some other members backed the Georgians in rejecting a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides "to renounce the use of force," council diplomats said.

The meaning of this is clear: the United States and Britain are backing Saakashvili's invasion. Why would we back Saakashvili's reckless war, when last year even Bush was denouncing the Pinochet-wannabe's violent attack on his own people during a peaceful opposition protest in Georgia's capital, as well as shutting down the opposition media and exiling of political opponents? That would be a brain-teaser if the last seven years hadn't answered this question so many painful times already.

But with McCain, answering this is a little trickier. When he issued today's Des Moines statement calling for Russia to do what Russia already did a few hours earlier, you have to ask yourself: either McCain's short-term memory is totally shot, encased in an impenetrable tomb of aluminum-zirconium plaque... or worse, McCain simply doesn't give a damn about reality, he just wants to get Georgia's war on, as badly as Saakashvili does.

The awful truth is probably a combination of the two, which is the worst of all worlds, considering McCain's raving Russophobia, and his campaign team's financial and ideological ties to Saakashvili. As has been reported, McCain's top foreign policy advisor, neocon Randy Scheunemann, has a long financial relationship with Saakashvili to lobby his interests in the United States.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

In 2005, Mr. Scheunemann asked Sen. McCain to introduce a Senate resolution expressing support for peace in the Russian-influenced region of South Ossetia that wants to break away from Georgia, the records show.

Such resolutions of Senate support are symbolic but helpful to countries in their diplomatic relations. The Senate approved Sen. McCain's resolution in December 2005, and the Georgian Embassy posted the text on its Web site.

Sen. McCain has endorsed Georgia's goal of entering NATO, a matter for which the country hired Mr. Scheunemann to lobby. In 2006, Senator McCain gave a speech at the Munich Conference on Security in Germany in which he said "Georgia has implemented far-reaching political, economic, and military reforms" and should enter NATO, a text of his speech on the conference Web site shows.

Scheunemann, a bearded, pear-faced gun geek who looks like what might have happened to a GI Joe doll if it had spent years stuffing its face at pricey restaurants while power-schmoozing politicians and petty dictators, also worked for recently-disgraced Bush fundraiser Stephen Payne, lobbying for his Caspian Alliance oil business. The Caspian oil pipeline runs through Georgia, the main reason that country has tugged the heartstrings of neocons and oil plutocrats for at least a decade or more.

In 2006, McCain visited Georgia and denounced the South Ossetian separatists, proving that Scheunemann wasn't wasting his Georgian sponsor's money. At a speech he gave in a Georgian army base in Senaki, McCain declared that Georgia was America's "best friend," and that Russian peacekeepers should be thrown out.

Today, Georgian forces from that same Senaki base are part of the invasion force into South Ossetia, an invasion that has left scores--perhaps hundreds--of dead locals, at least ten dead Russian peacekeepers, and 140 million pissed-off Russians calling for blood.

Lost in all of this is not only the question of why America would risk an apocalypse to help a petty dictator like Saakashvili get control of a region that doesn't want any part of him. But no one's bothering to ask what the Ossetians themselves think about it, or why they're fighting for their independence in the first place. That's because the Georgians--with help from lobbyists like Scheunemann--have been pushing the line that South Ossetia is a fiction, a construct of evil Kremlin neo-Stalinists, rather than a people with a genuine grievance.

A few years ago, I had an Ossetian working as the sales director for my now-defunct newspaper, The eXile. After listening to me rave about how much I always (and still do) like the Georgians, he finally lost it and told me another side to Georgian history, explaining how the Georgians had always mistreated the Ossetians, and how the South Ossetians wanted to reunite with North Ossetia in order to avoid being swallowed up, and how this conflict goes way back, long before the Soviet Union days. It was clear that the Ossetian-Georgian hatred was old and deep, like many ethnic conflicts in this region. Indeed, a number of Caucasian ethnic groups still harbor deep resentment towards Georgia, accusing them of imperialism, chauvinism and arrogance.

One example of this can be found in historian Bruce Lincoln's book, Red Victory, in which he writes about the period of Georgia's brief independence from 1917 to 1921, a time when Georgia was backed by Britain:

the Georgian leaders quickly moved to widen their borders at the expense of their Armenian and Azerbaijani neighbors, and their territorial greed astounded foreign observers. 'The free and independent socialist democratic state of Georgia will always remain in my memory as a classic example of an imperialist small nation," one British journalist wrote.... "Both in territory snatching outside and bureaucratic tyranny inside, its chauvinism was beyond all bounds."

On Thursday, following intense Georgian shelling and katyusha rocketing into Tskhinvali, refugees streamed out of South Ossetia telling reporters that the Georgians had completely leveled entire villages and most of Tskhinvali, leaving "piles of corpses" in the streets, over 1,000 by some counts. Among the dead are at least ten Russian peacekeepers, who fell after their base was attacked by Georgian forces. Reports also say that Georgian forces destroyed a hotel where Russian journalists were staying.

In response, Russian jets bombed Georgian positions both inside South Ossetia and into Georgia proper, attacking one base where American military instructors are quartered (no Americans were reported hurt). By mid-afternoon Moscow time, as local television showed burning homes and Ossetian women and children huddling in bomb shelters, armored Russian columns were crossing into Georgian territory, and Georgia's President called for a total mobilization of military-aged men for war with Russia.

The invasion was backed up by a PR offensive so layered and sophisticated that I even got an hysterical call today from a hedge fund manager in New York, screaming about an "investor call" that Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze made this morning with some fifty leading Western investment bank managers and analysts. I've since seen a J.P. Morgan summary of the conference call, which pretty much reflects the talking points later picked up by the US media.

These kinds of conference calls are generally conducted by the heads of companies in order to give banking analysts guidance. But as the hedge fund manager told me today, "The reason Lado did this is because he knew the enormous PR value that Georgia would gain by going to the money people and analysts, particularly since Georgia is clearly the aggressor this time." As a former investment banker who worked in London and who used to head the Bank of Georgia, Gurgenidze knew what he was doing. "Lado is a former banker himself, so he knew that by framing the conflict for the most influential bankers and analysts in New York, that these power bankers would then write up reports and go on CNBC and argue Lado Gurgenidze's talking points. It was brilliant, and now you're starting to see the American media shift its coverage from calling it Georgia invading Ossetian territory, to the new spin, that it's Russian imperial aggression against tiny little Georgia."

The really scary thing about this investor conference call is that it suggests real planning. As the hedge fund manager told me, "These things aren't set up on an hour's notice."

Where this war is leading is impossible to say, but as Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Chechnya, have shown, wars have a funny way of lasting longer, costing more in money and lives, and snuffing out whatever individual liberties the affected populations may have. As good as this war is for Saakashvili, who has become increasingly unpopular at home and abroad, or for McCain, whose poll numbers seem to rise every time the plaque devours another lobe of his brain, it also bodes well for the resurgent Prime Minister Putin, who seems to have become increasingly peeved with his hand-picked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev's flickering independence and his liberalizer shtick. There's nothing like a good war to snuff out an uppity sois-disant liberal who's getting in your way--even McCain can still grasp this concept.

As I'm filing this, Russian forces are battling to take back Tskhinvali, while Saakashvili has been alternately claiming to have pulled his forces back, or that his forces are in full control of the city and defeating the Russians. Meanwhile, Georgia has been on a massive, successful, multi-layered PR offensive in the West, helped by years of cultivating people like John McCain as well as the army of neocons and old cold warriors who naturally gravitate to a fight with Russia.

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