Saturday, September 6, 2008

Parallel Universes

If you live in Berkeley and experience America mostly on television, you know why we sell T-shirts here advertising “Planet Berkeley.” There’s more than a little evidence we live in a parallel universe to the rest of the U.S.A.

Two days ago I attended a panel discussion at the Institute of International Studies on the Berkeley campus to hear four UC Berkeley experts on the Caucasus talk about what’s going on in Georgia: Steven M. Fish, Professor of Political Science; Yuri Slezkine, Professor of History and Director of the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; Johanna Nichols of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Edward W. Walker, Associate Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science and Executive Director of the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies.

Nichols went first. There are only 70,000 Ossetians, she said, most of whom have had it with Georgia and want to be part of Russia. The Abkhazians have even stronger desires to unite with Russia, having all but given up their native language and assimilated.

Lest you think this is coming with a pro-Russian slant, consider that Nichols’s strongest interest in the region is in Chechen. (How many people do you know who could write a Chechen dictionary?)

Then came Fish, Walker and Slezkine, all with pretty much the same message. (My point here is to get quickly to the bottom line, so I will not attempt to distinguish who said what, except on direct quotes.) It goes like this:

1. To line up the Georgians, the Russians, the Abkhazians, the Ossetians and all the rest of the ethnicities of the region into good guys and bad guys is partisanship based on something other than facts on the ground. There are no democracies, but rather poorly, often brutally governed enclaves, including Saakashvili’s Georgia, a police state more abusive even than Russia. (This from Fish, author of Democracy Derailed in Russia, which argues that Russia's post-communist democratic experiment a failure.)

2. We in the U.S., by taking a triumphalist stance over Russia when the wall came down, made an enemy of a state which has risen to new power, thanks to its oil and gas wealth, a possibility that anybody who wanted to could have seen coming. (Where was the great Soviet expert Condoleezza Rice on this?)

3. Our three biggest problems in the world are: oil, international terror, and the economy (read: competition from China.) Russia has oil, is culturally much more closely aligned to Europeans and Americans than Iran, Iraq or Saudia Arabia, has the best terrorist fighting strength in the world after the United States, and also views China with suspicion. If the U.S. had not dumbed down so badly (my editorializing, forgive me), if it had maintained the foreign relations expertise it once had (George F. Kennan, W. Averell Harriman), and not thumbed its nose at the rest of the world, labeling bullies people who resist our own bullying, and casting opponents as evildoers in religious terms, we might have a partner where we now have an enemy who celebrates our international impotence.

4. We are impotent, internationally. We cannot go to war with Russia, so when Russia marches into Georgia, there isn’t one damn thing we can do about it.

5. The Europeans are not going to help us. Their new role is to referee the new cold war rhetoric. They need Russia too much to do anything else.

6. The arch nationalist Saakashvili took a gamble on August 7 that the U.S. would come to his aid when he marched into South Ossetia, which had been independent since 1992 . (Remember those miscommunications to Saddam Hussein before we went to war with Iraq?) He is an idiot. An English-speaking idiot, which means we think he’s smart, but a ruthless nationalist, not a freedom fighter. Even the Europeans are trying to wish him away.

7. His marching into South Ossetia was a dream come true for Russia. Their part in the war can now be cast as defensive, they point out that because the United States supported Kosovo independence, claiming that regions have the right to break free of bad regimes, the U.S. has nothing to say to Russia’s helping Abkhazia and Ossetia do the same. Either the U.S. is for self-determination, or it is not. After all, Abkhazians and Ossetians want union with Russia no less badly than Kosovars wanted independence from Serbia.

8. What’s really to blame (besides everybody on all the sides involved) is the U.S. attempt to turn all of Russia’s neighbors into U.S. client states under the umbrella of NATO. (“What does Georgia have to do with the North Atlantic?”) Americans, genuinely and sincerely believing themselves to be “the good guys,” cannot understand (but must learn) that Russia sees this exactly the way the U.S. saw missiles in Cuba, and would see Russian hegemony over Venezuela, Mexico and the Caribbean.

9. Russia cares about what happens in Georgia, but it cares even more what happens in Ukraine. Ukraine is now a failed state, and the U.S. is moving in there, too. [Or maybe not. And maybe the reversals are now getting serious. (See this take from an Abu Dhabi newspaper.)] If the U.S. moves to take Ukraine into its orbit, this war in Georgia will look like a rehearsal for the real performance. Russia is making a stand, and will not back down, knowing the U.S. has no way of preventing the Caucasus from becoming involved in endless wars. “Peacekeeping forces can’t keep peace – states keep peace.” (Fish – said in the context of assigning the two regions to one state or another).

10. Blaming this all on the Republicans isn’t justified. NATO expansion began in the early 1990s with Clinton. A regime change from Bush and company might lessen tensions, but Russians don’t make big distinctions between American Republicans and Democrats. That said, it might be worth pointing out that McCain’s chief foreign policy advisor is a lobbyist on Saakashvili’s payroll.

I leave the hot conference room (we don’t have air conditioning in Northern California) for some fresh air, walk down Telegraph Avenue and wonder at the contrast between this heady crowd of Russian, Georgian, European and American intellectuals, and all the street people begging for spare change.

Just took a break to check the news:

Then I see in my e-mail this article by E. Wayne Merry of the Nixon Center, of all places:

and this appeal from Stanford professor and founder of the Beyond War Foundation, Martin Hellman:

And I am reminded of

“Today we are all Georgians.”
- John McCain

Actually, it's less about Berkeley vs. the U.S.A., as I suggested at the outset, and as the right wing (with Berkeley's complicity) likes to suggest, than it is between two sets of folk, those who live with ideas grounded in evidence and reason on the one hand, and those who live in the streets or accept the rhetoric of political conventions (the distance between those two is not as far as you might think) because it makes us feel good, on the other.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not passing on these ideas as the gospel truth (although it's tempting to lean that way, given these guys' credentials). I'm just reflecting on the low level of discourse in America's political realm, where one wishes other viewpoints on this latest flashpoint would get some sort of hearing.

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