10 August 2008

South Ossetia On My MInd

Descended from the Alan people, and onetime inhabitants of the land of the Golden Fleece, the Ossetians were scattered by the Mongol invasions of the late Middle Ages. One of three major population concentrations of refugees was in the kingdom that the western world calls "Georgia." Georgia itself fell under the influence of the Persian Empire until it was annexed by Russia early in the 19th century. While "South Ossetia" is part of Georgia, "North Ossetia" is part of Russia. Further lands conquered in the region conquered by Russia, including Abkhazia, were attached to Georgia. Upon the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, Georgia declared its independence, which lasted until 1921. During that time, the South Ossetians rose against the Georgians. When the Bolsheviks consolidated their rule in the region, they made South Ossetia an "autonomous oblast" within Georgia. After Georgia claimed its independence from the moribund USSR, the South Ossetians were among several groups, including the Abkhazians, that demanded independence from or regional autonomy within Georgia. As relations between Ossetians and Russians have reportedly been friendly through history, Russia elects to act as a protector of Ossetians rights. It has peacekeepers within the region and has this weekend intervened in Georgia in defense of South Ossetian interests.

A superficial glance at on-line references can't really tell me how well Ossetians and Georgians have gotten along in the centuries since the former moved in. Relying on the Internet for objective information is risky, especially if one goes to Wikipedia, where partisans of both groups, not to mention Russians and Americans, have no doubt attempted biased editing. In addition, we should take care to appraise the claims of Ossetians independent of our opinions of their Georgian antagonists or their Russian sponsors. It shouldn't matter whether or not Georgia is an aspiring ally of the United States or if Russia benefits in some way from South Ossetian autonomy. Russia looks like the bad guy now, but how do their actions differ from those taken by the U.S. against Yugoslavia (aka "Serbia") in the interests of Bosnia or Kosovo? Making that equation, however, shouldn't force us into a simplistic equation of Ossetian aspirations with those of Bosniaks and Kosovars. To be honest, I'm just beginning to learn about this region, so I'm not going to offer a neat answer to the present crisis. The most I can do right now is try to set the parameters for an objective discussion, for all the good that will do. Its relevance to American readers really doesn't extend beyond our concern that the Bush administration, not to mention Senators McCain and Obama, don't do or say anything irresponsible for geopolitical, ideological or self-interested reasons.

The Ossetian question has already become a campaign issue thanks to Governor Richardson's accusation that McCain is biased toward Georgia because one of the Republican's advisers was once a lobbyist for that country. Richardson had perhaps missed the fact that his candidate, Obama, has been denouncing the Russian incursion through the weekend in language very similar to McCain's. Richardson would be right to say that American foreign policy generally tends to be biased against Russia, but he should speak for himself on that point before implying that McCain is biased in a way that Obama is not. That having been said, McCain has usually used harsher language for the Putin regime than I can recall hearing from Obama, and his "League of Democracies" notion is almost inherently anti-Russian in character. Obama would win a debate on how to handle Russia almost by default unless he proves himself a Russophobe during the campaign. That remains a possibility, since the Ossetian crisis makes a Russian question more likely part of the coming foreign-policy debate.

Personally, I sympathize with Americans who choose to have no opinion on the matter, but I urge them to look out for politicians who want to make it our business, who'll talk about the Georgian democracy of the "rose revolution" and the debt we owe them for helping us in the war on terror. Skepticism toward American propaganda isn't the same as skepticism toward Georgia's interests in the conflict, but as Americans, we have an obligation to the first before the second.

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The timing of it all was odd for me in an entirely personal way. I've just finished reading a book called Vindicating Lincoln, which exposes an ongoing historical debate, mostly taking place right of center in American life, over the legality and justice of President Lincoln's actions against the secession movement of 1860-1. The debate pits neocons, followers of Leo Strauss, and most likely the "establishment" on one side, in favor of Lincoln, and libertarians, "paleocons" and anti-war conservatives on the other side -- leaving the plain racists out of the equation. For the sake of balance, I also read one of the anti-Lincoln books while perusing other recent works and primary sources in my own library. During the coming week I'm going to write a review article that deals with the historical debate and the issues it raises about secession, federalism, the right of revolution, the notion of natural rights, and presidential leadership. My preliminary conclusion is that both sides are wrong about different aspects of history, and that neither is helpful toward drawing an objective conclusion about the Civil War. Beyond that, you'll have to read on.

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