On June 16, 2001, in the palmy days before 9/11, George Bush famously said of Vladimir Putin,
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialog. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”
On August 8, 2008, the man George Bush said he trusted gave George Bush, and the entire US government, a straightforward and much-deserved kick in the balls, as he sent his army rolling into Georgia, on the pretext of “protecting the rights” of the inhabitants of the tiny country of South Ossetia, most of whom would rather be Russian than Georgian. Oh, and this move also placed Russian troops close to two of the three pipelines that cross Georgia. That’s what the kick in the balls was about.
Well, Bush got it right about Putin’s commitment to the best interests of Russia, anyway. Russia under Putin has repeatedly flexed its muscles and moved to return to a place on the world stage similar to the role played by the Soviet Union–a counterbalance to US hegemony. One of the techniques they have used has been to manipulate other countries with Russian oil and gas, which largely supply Western Europe. To work around this, the US and a number of other countries and oil companies (some oil companies are about the size of a country, y’know?) have built three oil pipelines across Azerbaijan and Georgia, to move fuel from central Asia to the west without passing through Russian territory. Putin, by his moves into Georgia, gave notice that they were not far enough from Russia to make any difference.
In discussions prior to the conflict, Putin told Georgian prime minister Saakashvili that he could take NATO’s promises of support and stick them up his ass. His assessment was correct; when push came to shove, the US and the EU were impotent to stop the Russians. Georgia’s entrance into NATO, which the US has been urging on the reluctant Europeans, is on hold for now, because NATO is a mutual defense pact, among other things, and NATO members were treated to the sobering realization that bringing Georgia into the fold could result in going to war with Russia, something nobody except maybe Dick Cheney is willing to countenance.
Now, obviously, I don’t think the Russians are the good guys in this high-stakes poker game. There are no good guys in this game. Based on the kind of saber-rattling he’s been doing, and the fact that Zbigniew Brezinski is one of his chief foreign policy advisers, Obama’s election will not introduce a good guy into the game, nor will John McCain. Both are pandering to the worst instincts of the US public by trying to out tough-guy each other.
Obama is being just as disingenuous as Bush and McCain, talking about the need to support the Georgians without mentioning supporting the people of South Ossetia or Abkazia, without mentioning that the Georgians were the aggressors–and certainly not mentioning oil pipelines or Kazakhstan, the source of the oil and gas that the west wants to siphon out without involving Russia. Kazakhstan is a brutal one-party state. The last opposition candidate for prime minister was murdered, and nobody has gone to trial for it. But, because of the country’s vast petroleum and uranium reserves, and because of our societal addiction to these substances, western leaders from Bill Clinton to Angela Merkel to both Bushes have gritted their teeth and praised Kazakhstan’s “democracy,” honoring its president with awards and audiences, when in fact he is every bit as brutal a tyrant as Saddam Hussein. If Saddam deserved the treatment he got, then Nursultan Nazarbayev should have been hanging right beside him…but Nazarbyev, unlike Saddam and small-time players like Panama’s Noriega, has not yet committed the capital sin of opposing US hegemony. (Just in case you forgot, Saddam was about to start asking for Euros instead of dollars when he sold oil, and Noriega was hooking up with Fidel.) Nazarbayev is, however, playing up the possibility of deals with his neighbor Russia in order to gain bargaining leverage with western governments and oil companies–but, again, nobody in their right mind wants to go to war with Russia over Kazakhstan–or anything else, for that matter. We can threaten smaller countries like Iran and Libya and North Korea, but we gonna be very diplomatic with the Russians, yes, sir.
Not that we won’t try and screw the Russians, in our very diplomatic way. The big oil companies have been wary of Russia since they nationalized their oil industry, and the US government has shaped its mideast and central Asian policies to help these private corporations. The invasion of Iraq (and consequent cancellation of Saddam’s oil contracts with Russia), our chummy relationship with the despotic governments of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, construction of the pipelines that circumvent Russia, and arming and training the Georgian military, all have been done for the benefit of big oil.
But Putin’s kick in the balls showed the world what an illusion US power really is. Our country accounts for over half of the world’s military spending, and it gets us–zilch. It takes us six years to begin to pin down one little country like Iraq, meanwhile chewing up a major portion of our troops and military hardware, and when Putin kicks us in the balls, we blink and sputter and do nothing, because there’s nothing we can do. What, are we going to go to war with Russia? Hey, if Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” Russia is their black hole. Napoleon, Hitler…you get the picture. Only Dick Cheney–or maybe John McCain–is crazy enough to issue those kind of orders, but it was crazy to undertake a strategy based on brinksmanship in the first place.
What would a saner policy look like?
A saner policy would recognize the ultimate impotence of military power, and the ultimate futility of trying to secure oil supplies in faraway countries. It would dismantle the US military, and redirect all that misused energy into building real global security by helping everyone get involved with their neighbors in regional mutual support networks of farms, local manufacturing, and energy production, promoting sustainability and interdependence, and recognizing the validity of small, local cultures such as Abkahzia, Ossetia, Georgia, and, yes Mr. Putin, Chechnya, too. That’s the real route to global security. Along with greater security, we need to spread education about birth control and population reduction, because, while it is barely possible to graciously support the number of people currently alive on the planet, it will become impossible if the number grows, and easier if the number of humans actually starts to shrink.
Meanwhile, the US has sent a naval squadron to Georgia, and the Russians have responded by conducting joint military exercises with the Venezuelan navy in the Caribbean. Both of these moves are inexcusable wastes of fuel, material, and manpower. We have only a limited amount of time left in which we will be able to maneuver, and every move needs to defuse tension and increase sustainability. Neither Russian nor American policy in the Caucasus reflects this awareness, and if this ignorance continues, everybody will lose.
music: James McMurtry, “God Bless America”