The Obama-oids aren’t talking too much about foreign policy these days, although that was their candidate’s ticket to the White House. Iraq was the winning issue that gave Obama’s primary campaign the oomph it needed to oust the putative front-runner from her perch as the anointed one, but it fails to evoke the interest it once did on account of the rapid deterioration of the economy. It doesn’t matter that the costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars amount to at least three more bank bailouts and you can throw in what’s left of the American auto industry for good measure.
For all the focus on domestic politics and economics, the rest of the world has a way of intruding without much regard for our schedule or context. The announcement of Obama’s victory was still reverberating globally, amid a chorus of media-hyped hosannas, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a speech in which Obama was not so much as alluded to: instead, the stern-faced successor to Vladimir Putin delivered a tongue-lashing in which he described the global financial crisis as having started as "a local extraordinary event in the U.S. markets," the result of "erroneous, egotistical, and sometimes even dangerous decisions by some members of the global community," i.e., the West. This was prefaced by a declaration that "to neutralize if necessary the anti-missile system, an Iskander missile system will be deployed in the Kaliningrad region. Naturally, we also consider using for the same purpose the resources of Russia’s navy."
The "anti-missile system" Medvedev is here referring to is an untested and quite expensive new weapon being marketed to our Eastern European NATO partners, with huge profits for U.S. manufacturers. The old Committee to Expand NATO was basically a front for these interests. Their victory in getting the former Warsaw Pact admitted to the club was sweetened by the agreement to install the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which means billions for the U.S. arms industry, the only sector that’s prospering in these hard times. It also marks the crowning provocation of a whole series of hostile acts aimed at the Kremlin, which Medvedev had no choice but to reply to in the way he did.
The Medvedev speech wasn’t very good public relations, at least in the West, but the Russians are less concerned about what the editorial page of the Washington Post has to say on the subject than what to say to their own people as the West draws nearer to the Kremlin’s very doorstep. Shielded behind a sophisticated, albeit untested, anti-missile system, NATO forces stationed in Poland could take out Moscow in minutes. No Russian government can permit that condition to long endure.
What we know of Obama’s views on Russia are not encouraging. In his infomercial, he vowed to "curb Russian aggression." This was a reference to the Russo-Georgian war, which John McCain made the signature issue of his foreign policy stance, and Obama joined with the Republican candidate in condemning Russian "aggression."
Except, as the New York Times and other sources report, it was the Georgians who were the aggressors, invading the rebel province of Ossetia just hours after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili went on television to declare a cease-fire. The Ossetians went to bed thinking they had nothing to worry about. They woke up, a few hours later, to a full-scale invasion of their country. The residents of Tskhinvali, the Ossetian capital, were subjected to a full-scale military assault. As the BBC reports:
"The BBC has discovered evidence that Georgia may have committed war crimes in its attack on its breakaway region of South Ossetia in August. Eyewitnesses have described how its tanks fired directly into an apartment block, and how civilians were shot at as they tried to escape the fighting."
Human Rights Watch, which led the way in downplaying attacks on civilians by the Georgian military, has apparently recanted its previous pronouncements and now avers that 300 to 400 dead is a "useful starting point." Tanks fired directly into apartment complexes, often aiming for the basements where civilians were likely to hide.
The Georgian lobby’s carefully orchestrated media campaign to spin the Georgian invasion as a heroic act of self-defense is now coming completely unraveled. OSCE monitors, assigned to watch the volatile region, report that the Georgians fired first and that the alleged "shelling" of Georgian villages that was supposed to have provoked the all-out Georgian assault on a civilian target did not in fact occur. Ryan Grist, the senior military officer in the OSCE group, testified:
"It was clear to me that the [Georgian] attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation. The attack was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town, as a town."
Grist, a former British Army captain, "resigned from the OSCE shortly afterwards," reports the Times of London. No doubt his bosses were less than delighted with what he had to report, and they must have been even less thrilled with what Stephen Young, a former RAF wing commander and Grist’s fellow OSCE monitor, had to add:
"If there had been heavy shelling in areas that Georgia claimed were shelled, then our people would have heard it, and they didn’t. They heard only occasional small-arms fire."
The conventional wisdom about the Russo-Georgian conflict has been blown to smithereens, and this points up a problem with the incoming administration illustrated in a recent New York Times piece entitled "Want A Security Post? Say Nothing." Everybody and their brother including some Republicans wants a national security post in Obama World, but the price is that potential recruits to the new administration stayed mum on the Russian question, or indeed "anything that might get them into trouble." The piece, by Helene Cooper, went on to say:
"Take the Russian invasion of Georgia, for example, an action that raised all sorts of complicated questions. But in Congress, at universities, and at research institutes, would-be Democratic secretaries of state and national security advisers sought to navigate that potential minefield by following the same cautious script. They condemned Russia (without proposing specific punishment). They proclaimed heartfelt support for President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, the congressional darling (without any questioning whether he was culpable in inviting the attacks). And they publicly voiced strong backing for Georgia’s entry into NATO, a possibility that most of these same foreign policy experts acknowledge privately is as likely as a warm winter in Moscow."
Obama is going to have to make a decision on the Russian question fairly early, because Moscow is taking the initiative, in the case of the missile shield. NATO expansion, the Georgian issue, and the whole strategy pursued by the Bush administration, which amounted to the encirclement of Russia: these issues will not wait. The overly cautious demeanor that is already taking shape as the signature style of the incoming administration is a worrying sign that this isn’t about "change," it’s about mindless orthodoxy.