Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deserves credit for knowing how to make good use of a bad historical analogy. Where any other Republican Secretary of State would have chosen the Munich analogy to denounce the current Russian military intervention in Georgia, Rice reminded her audience of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 during a press conference on August 13: “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government, and get away with it.,” she said. “Things have changed.”
What merits attention is that Rice did not draw an actual parallel between 1968 and 2008. Instead she simply conjured the image of the Soviet Union/Russia as bully. That was smart, because the two events are so fundamentally dissimilar.
First, there was no territorial dispute involving minority ethnic regions in Czechoslovakia whose people preferred to be part of the Soviet Union. Majorities in both Abkazia and South Ossetia appear to prefer being part of the Russian Federation rather than the Republic of Georgia. Second, Czech President Alexander Dub?ek did not deliberately provoke the Soviet Union into a punishing military response by ordering the Czech army to attack Soviet peacekeepers. Georgian President Mikheil Saak’ashvili deliberately provoked the Russians by ordering his U.S.-trained Georgian army to attack the handful of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, killing 10 and wounding 30. He did that despite knowing that the Russian 58th Army was stationed just on the other side of the border.
If Secretary Rice had wanted to offer a proper historical analogy, she could have compared the current conflict with the 1864 Second War of Schleswig by which Schleswig and Holstein, two provinces with ethnic German populations, were detached from the insecure grasp of Denmark and then annexed to Germany. That was the first of several successful limited wars by which the brilliant Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck finally unified Germany and then established it as a Great Power.
Neo-realist international relations scholars interpret the current conflict as another step in Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s strategy for the reemergence of Russia as a Great Power by asserting power in its traditional sphere of influence. Rice is obviously unlikely to deploy this historical analogy. First, only a fraction of her American audience will know the historical reference or have ever heard of Schleswig and Holstein. Even mentioning it risks alerting them that whether Georgia or Russia has sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia really doesn’t matter in the long run.whether Georgia or Russia has sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia really doesn’t matter in the long run. It is unwise to encourage the masses to wonder why their political elites are so agitated about the ownership of some distant smear of color on the world map. Worse, Rice would appear too much the smarty pants intellectual for the sort of populist conservative who seeks political wisdom from the likes of Jeff Beck and Toby Keith. And that could be a negative for any plans she might have for a future political career. Second, comparing the two little wars would suggest that Putin was on a par with Bismarck. She can‘t have that. After all, history will deem the president she serves anything but a strategic genius, and she has played a major role in helping him squander so much of America’s power in the world.
There may be no good historical parallel for the disastrous decision-making of Georgian President Saak’ashvili. Instead, a cinematic reference is necessary.
Listening to Saak’ashvili’s rambling performance during a August 15th joint press conference with Rice is like watching the immortal Groucho Marx perform in the 1938 Marx Brothers’ comedy "Duck Soup." Groucho’s character is Rufus T. Firefly, the new President of Freedonia, who snatches war from the jaws of peace by insulting the ambassador of neighboring Sylvania and thus torpedoing a negotiated peace settlement. As the Freedonian army collapses and the Sylvanian army closes in on the presidential palace, Firefly goes on the radio to plead for international assistance:
“Calling all nations! Calling all nations! This is Rufus T. Firefly...(We’re in a mess folks!) Rush to Freedonia. Three men and one woman are trapped in a building. Send help at once.”
Here is Saak’ashvili fulminating at the Russians during an August 15th joint press conference with Rice:
“Bullying and blackmailing is the best things they enjoy and the only thing they understand. It’s unity and strength of international community; nothing else can deter and stop them, because otherwise, they are like—they will stop—keep advancing, they will keep killing, they will keep destroying other countries.”
What deprives the Georgian Firefly’s performance of its comedic punch is that his decisions resulted in the deaths of actual human beings and made refugees of many more. That, and the fact that he seems unstable.
If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that is this absurd little war in the Caucuses it is that more Americans may begin to question why the Bush administration would endorse making Georgia and neighboring countries members of NATO. What they will be asking is whether it makes sense to obligate the U.S. armed forces to defend their political elites from the consequences of their irresponsible actions. How often will Americans have to watch the leader of a NATO “ally” on the borders of Russia appear on television to deliver an unfunny version of Grouch’s lyrics?: “Tell them the enemy comes from afar, with a hey nonny-nonny and a ha-cha-cha.”
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This story was published on August 17, 2008.