Czechoslovakia on Their Minds

August 18, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the August 25, 2008, issue of American Conservative.

Neoconservatives and their useful idiots in the American media have been on overdrive this August, rewinding to their World War II analogies and applying them to the fast‐​forwarding world of global politics. Exhibit A: the obvious likeness of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Games. Hitlergram of the Month was the parallel drawn between Nazi‐​era filmmaker turned propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who was invited by the Führer to film the Olympics in Berlin — the result being the technically and aesthetically impressive documentary “Olympia” — and the celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who was commissioned by his government to produce the magnificent opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. The power of analogy, there for the China‐​bashers’ taking.

But no neocon narrative is complete without Czechoslovakia. Imagine your average Weekly Standard subscriber taking a free‐​association test and being asked to state the first words that come to his mind when he hears “Czechoslovakia.” Rest assured, he would respond with “Munich,” “appeasement,” “Chamberlain,” or “umbrella.” And let’s not forget “Hitler.”

Thus can anyone clamoring for U.S. military intervention in, say, the former Yugoslavia or the Persian Gulf, mount a successful media and public‐​relations campaign by identifying his chosen victim (the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, or Kuwait, or the Kurds) with Czechoslovakia and associating his preferred “aggressor” (Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein) with Hitler. Those Americans who resist pressure to deploy U.S. troops abroad to save the victim from the aggressor are appeasers leading the world into another Munich.

Here we go again. “The details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important,” explained leading neocon foreign‐​policy ideologue Robert Kagan — who insists that he isn’t a neocon at all — in a column in the Washington Post three days after the eruption of hostilities between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. “Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia?” he asked.

Kagan, one of the chief advisers to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, wants to kick “revisionist” Russia out of the G-8 and establish a League of Democracies as part of a strategy to contain the growing threat from Moscow. Kagan’s answer to his rhetorical question in his column titled “Putin Makes his Move” (wink, wink — like you‐​know‐​who made his move 70 years ago): “Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama.”

That would also be our new drama in which “little” Czechoslovakia becomes “tiny” Georgia, the South Ossetians stand in for the Sudeten Germans, Mikheil Saakashvili is Eduard Benes, Putin does Hitler, and we, of course, are required to reprise the role of Churchill. But according to Kagan the dramatist, there is a danger that we’ll be tempted to beat our swords into umbrellas: “Now, as then, however, [feelings] are being manipulated to justify autocracy at home [in Russia] and to convince Western powers that accommodation — or to use the once‐​respectable term, appeasement — is the best policy.”

The U.S. military is fighting two major wars in the Broader Middle East — perhaps three soon, if we follow the neocon advice to strike Iran — paid for by the central bankers in Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul. What sense does it make for Washington to risk a costly diplomatic conflict and perhaps a military confrontation with Russia over a local dispute in the Caucasus?

It makes perfect sense to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. After carefully studying his Neoconservatism for Dummies guide — required reading for any leader of a “color revolution” seeking U.S. dollars and troops — he began trying to convince Americans to “save” his country from the Russian “revanchists” by comparing Georgia to Czechoslovakia in 1938, warning that the defeat of Georgia at the hands of the Russians would be a blow against Western interests and values worldwide. After Georgia falls, Ukraine would become the next target for Russia’s belligerence. And before you know it, the new Russian petro‐​empire would be dominating Eurasia, recreating the old Soviet Union — with Russian nationalism and the Eastern Orthodox Church replacing Communism as ideological glue — and forcing Western Europe, dependent economically on Russia’s energy resources, to submit to Moscow’s dictates. Hence the need for America to draw the line at the border between Georgia and Russia.

But Americans who read a bit closer have to conclude that the conflict doesn’t involve core U.S. strategic and economic interests and that the moral and historical claims being raised by the warring sides are at best ambiguous. In fact, as seen from Moscow, it’s the U.S. that has reneged on commitments it made at the end of the Cold War. In the Kremlin’s view, America has been implementing an aggressive military strategy aimed at weakening Russia by extending NATO to its borders, installing U.S. antiballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, and obliterating a former ally in the Balkans while strengthening rising anti‐​Russian forces in Ukraine and the Caucasus, areas that were traditionally seen by Russia as part of its sphere of influence.

Wouldn’t Americans see Russian policy as hostile if Moscow invited Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador to join the military pact of the Shanghai Treaty Organization? Or encouraged a Russian‐​government‐​backed version of the National Endowment for Democracy to assist anti‐​American political parties in activities against pro‐​American governments in Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica? Or installed Russian antiballistic missiles in Cuba? Wouldn’t U.S. troops be landing in Panama if a pro‐​Russian government in Bogota, clamoring to join the STO, tried to regain control of Panama, which in a move backed by the U.S. seceded from Colombia in 1903 and became an American protectorate?

From that perspective, Russian backing for the separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the deployment of Russian troops in the region seem perfectly logical. Georgia, like the former Yugoslavia, is a multiethnic state, and not unlike the Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia, both South Ossetians and Abkhazians have their own language, culture, history, and separatist aspirations. While the Russians were willing to freeze the status quo in these autonomous regions, the decision by the U.S. and its European allies to demand political independence for Kosovo, coupled with recent American efforts to bring Georgia into NATO, dared Russian leaders to act forcefully in response to Saakashvili’s move to retake South Ossetia. If Americans assume the right to force nationalist and somewhat democratic and geographically distant Serbia to relinquish control over Kosovo, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Russians attempt to put similar pressure on the nationalist and somewhat democratic and geographically close Georgia when it comes to South Ossetia.

Kagan is wrong. The details of who did what to precipitate the war in the Caucasus are very important. It’s quite possible that the “revisionist” U.S. policy in the region — and especially its strategy of extending NATO to the borders of Russia — may have encouraged Saakashvili to test Russian resolve and try to turn South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the frontier of a new Cold War. Worse, forcing the U.S. to set up a tripwire that would have to be maintained by American military power could ignite a hot war between the two sides. Only by refraining from falling into Saakashvili’s trap and by “appeasing” Russia will Washington ensure that the local and morally ambiguous dispute in the Caucasus does not turn into a larger global drama.

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