Although the unfolding drama in the Caucasus has been a tragedy for its innocent victims, the response by America’s political and media elites has been an entertaining and delusional farce.
To recap events, the government of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia launched a surprise invasion of South Ossetia (an autonomous republic within Georgia that has been functionally independent since the break-up of the Soviet Union). On the night of August 8, the Georgian military — armed and trained by America and Israel — stormed through South Ossetia and overran the region’s putative capital city (leaving it a smoldering ruin). Thousands of Ossetian refugees poured northward to Russia, bringing harrowing tales of Georgian brutality. As the Georgian army swept through the countryside, they encountered groups of Russian peacekeepers, who had been stationed there years ago to monitor a previous ceasefire. Several of those Russian soldiers were killed by the advancing Georgian forces.
As anyone with a remote understanding of Russian history (and human nature) should have been able to predict, the Russians reacted rather badly. Before the Georgians could consolidate their "victory," the Russians unleashed a devastating counterattack.
All in all, the Russian operation was a fairly impressive combined arms campaign that involved tactical air support, armor, mechanized infantry, and naval assets. The Georgian air force was destroyed on the ground, and the Georgian navy was sunk or neutralized. Russian forces quickly retook all of South Ossetia and seized critical chokepoints along Georgia’s highway system, effectively cutting the nation into three parts.
The smoke had barely cleared when the Bush Administration, the neoconservative pundits, and our lapdog media started crying foul. Russian leader Vladimir Putin was, inevitably, likened to Adolf Hitler. Georgia was portrayed as an innocent victim of unprovoked aggression. The Ossetian victims were quickly relegated to the Orwellian memory hole.
Although I am not a fan of Vladimir Putin (he is certainly not a libertarian), it’s hard to garner much sympathy for the Georgians. The Russian counteroffensive merely gave the Georgians a stiff dose of precisely the same medicine they were planning to give to the Ossetians.
All in all, it was a humanitarian tragedy, but hardly a heartrending tale of Georgian victimhood.
But America long ago ceased to analyze events with anything remotely resembling an objective moral standard. Nowadays, the only yardsticks our imperial elites understand are power and self-interest.
Over the past seven years, the Bush Administration strove to "contain" Russia by establishing Georgia as a regional proxy. This was quickly followed by the now-familiar horror-show of Washington special interest groups. The petroleum lobby wanted to control a vital pipeline that transports Caspian oil to the Mediterranean. The military coveted Georgian territory for "lily-pad" bases. The arms industry saw Georgia as a lucrative market for its new geegaws and gizmos.
It was a wonderful little playground, and everything was going swimmingly until Putin came along and kicked over the apple cart.
But from all the whining in the media, you’d think it was the Russians who actually started the war.
The most telling example I’ve seen of neoconservative bellyaching was published by Leon Aron (a Russia scholar at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute) in the August 13 edition of USA Today. Most of his article consists of ad hominem attacks on Vladimir Putin and petty ethnic slurs against the Russian people, but the real meat of the piece involves Aron’s description of a newfound menace he calls "Putinism."
"Putinism" is, he claims, a dangerous crypto-fascist ideology that is engulfing contemporary Russia. In the article, Aron lists the main tenets of "Putinism," and, in the process, reveals more about himself and the American Enterprise Institute than he does anything about Russia or its leaders.
There are, according to Aron, five major characteristics of "Putinism":
- The intensely personal system of power in which the "national leader" rather than democratic institutions rule.
- The state propaganda themes of loss and imperial nostalgia.
- The idea of the besieged fortress Russia surrounded by cunning, ruthless, and plotting enemies on every side.
- Spy mania
- The labeling of political opposition as the "fifth column" traitors.
To the wearied libertarian ear, this newly discovered ideology should sound eerily familiar.
In truth, each and every one of these principles has already been embraced — and even glorified — by the very neoconservatives who now so viciously denounce Putin.
Take the first tenet, for example. The intensely personal system of power in which the "national leader" rather than democratic institutions rule.
Haven’t the neocons been claiming that our president reigns supreme in times of war, and that he is free to discard the constitution’s limitations on his power as he sees fit? Haven’t they supported policies that allow the president to finger anyone as a "terrorist sympathizer" — a designation that permits our government to imprison suspects without access to a lawyer or a court? (Or, even worse, to "rendition" detainees to overseas dungeons for a healthy dose of "enhanced interrogation techniques"?)
As for the part about "state propaganda," didn’t the Pentagon get caught paying pundits to plant pro-war op-ed articles in American newspapers? Haven’t the neocons been glorifying war as a necessary and desirable strategy for American "benevolent world hegemony"?
As for the part about "spy mania" and fomenting paranoia, can anyone rival the neocons in that department? It was the Bushites — not Vladimir Putin — who gutted the Fourth Amendment with a massive telephone and email wiretapping program — all executed without court-approved warrants. And what about the endless stories of grandmothers and handicapped people being roughed-up and strip-searched at airports because we are allegedly "surrounded by cunning, ruthless, and plotting enemies on every side"?
And what about the Putinesque strategy of "labeling political opposition as traitors." I vividly recall, during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, that anyone who disagreed with the administration’s war plans was promptly smeared and driven from public life by packs of slobbering neoconservative pit bulls. (Has anyone heard from General Shinseki lately?)
And let’s not forget some of the other memorable moments on the Bush II highlight reel.
Did Vladimir Putin suggest to his cronies that they should paint Russian warplanes with UN colors and buzz Georgian cities (thus providing a convenient casus belli if the Georgians should shoot one of them down)? Did Vladimir Putin sow fear among his people with stories of an imminent attack by fictitious, chemical-spraying drones?
Given recent history, the rest of the world must be watching Washington’s anti-Russian hissy fit with slack-jawed disbelief.
Although the reptilian nature of our ruling class long ago ceased to amaze me, there is one question that still piques my curiosity: When our elites write articles like this one in USA Today, are they aware of their hypocrisy? Are they totally deaf to the screams of their own irony, or are they coldly cognizant of their actions?
To put it another way, when the doors are closed and the cameras are turned off, do the neocon pundits kick back in the paneled AEI smoking room, light up a few cigars, and laugh at how stupid they think we all are? Or does some massive wall in their psyche prevent them from gaining true insight into their own nature?
Either way, I agree with Leon Aron about precisely one thing: Putinism — as he defines it — IS a dangerous and destabilizing ideology. But he needn’t go all the way to Moscow to find it.
Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.