The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 provides the clearest current example of how war propaganda works – and how counter-propaganda can negate it and turn the tables on the War Party.
You’ll recall that as news of the conflict broke in the West, the war was reported as stemming from a Russian "invasion," i.e. the Russians had fired the first shots in the process of occupying a disputed region of Georgia known as South Ossetia. The headlines blared that the Russian aggressors were on the march, and all the tattered paraphernalia of the cold war was hauled out of the closet and dusted off by mainstream analysts, who divined the meaning of the Russian action ("resurgent Russia"), and proffered the proper Western response ("We’re all Georgians now," enthused John McCain). McCain leapt out ahead of the pack at the starting gun, and quickly endorsed his buddy Mikhail Saakashvili’s fanciful version of events, declaring that the US must give unconditional support to Georgia: Russia, he declared, was the aggressor, and we cannot let aggression stand.
Barack Obama initially came out with a statement urging both sides to agree to an immediate ceasefire, and for this was excoriated by McCain and the neocons, who yelped that Obama had committed the cardinal sin of "moral equivalence."
Obama and his family were on vacation at the time, in Hawaii, I believe, and hadn’t been quick enough on the draw: another example, his critics said, of how unprepared he is to take power, echoing Hillary Clinton’s infamous "Will he be ready for that 3 a.m. phone call?" ad. Properly chastised, Obama quickly corrected his error and issued another statement explicitly attributing the origins of the war to Russian "aggression."
As it turned out, Obama’s first instincts were correct, as the world learned a few weeks later and the truth came out about what events sparked the war between Georgia and Russia. As the smoke cleared and the evidence came in, the knee-jerk pro-Georgian reaction of the media was proved utterly wrong: it was Georgian forces that not only fired first, but assaulted and nearly demolished the "rebel" capital city of Tskhinvali, in which hundreds of civilians were slaughtered by US-funded, US-trained Georgian army units.
It’s a feather in the cap of Georgia’s lobby in America that they managed to obscure the truth for so long behind a barrage of overheated rhetoric and well-rehearsed dramatics worthy of a third-rate Hollywood scriptwriter. The heroic "democrat" Saakashvili vs. the neo-Stalin in the Kremlin is the narrative the Western media was pushing, but as it turns out the hero of this cold war revival is a lot closer to Stalin in temperament as well as nationality, than Putin ever dreamed.
Saakashvili has lately gone all out in his paranoia and desire for revenge, the two attributes of Stalin’s personality that have gone most remarked. To begin with, he relentlessly pushes a paranoid theory that Georgia’s democratic opposition parties are a conspiracy mounted by Russia to take over the country. And he continually vows that Georgia will retake South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway provinces his forces attacked in 2008. Toward this revanchist end he has begun a campaign to completely militarize Georgian society.
The best place to do that is in the schools, where the Saakashvili regime has instituted mandatory "military-patriotic education" courses, the announced purpose of which is to instill a "soldierly spirit" among the nation’s youth. According to Saakashvili, Georgia is still at war, and so these "civil defense" and political indoctrination courses are necessary to defend the country against an imminent attack. A fanatic nationalism is the first recourse of tyrants, as we’ve seen in the American experience, and this is Saakashvili’s bludgeon with which he continuously beats down the opposition – even as his police are beating demonstrators in the streets.
Here is Saakashvili defending his "military-patriotic" indoctrination courses:
"We decided to introduce military-patriotic education [in schools] – although it may be called civil defense courses. So called liberals stirred noise about it, saying: ‘what a disaster it is; it’s a bad tone’. By the way, Soviet-time military courses at schools were not really good."
Yes, those Soviets sure were amateurs when it came to instilling the values of militarism and fanatic nationalism, not to mention suppressing national minorities. We Georgians will show them how it’s done. "Our country faces real challenges," Saakashvili intoned at a recent televised meeting with Tbilisi teachers and schoolchildren. He likened Georgia to Israel, a nation surrounded on all sides by enemies and thoroughly militarized. In Israel, they "are prepared when there are missile attacks."
Unfortunately for Saakashvili, the main danger to his continued rule doesn’t come from the slim-to-nonexistent threat of Russian missile attacks. His real worry is the political attacks emanating from his own impoverished, war-weary, disillusioned and increasingly desperate countrymen, who are chafing under his increasingly repressive regime.
"Unfortunately, we do not live in Switzerland and Holland," Saakashvili avers, continuing his tirade against the hated "liberals," "and there is one unfriendly country in our neighborhood. So, Georgia needs all these [civil defense or military-patriotic courses] and there is nothing militaristic in it… Georgia needs to defend itself. We do not attack anyone. But 20% of our territory is occupied."
But of course Georgia did attack the South Ossetian capital city of Tskhinvali, directly firing on civilian quarters and killing and wounding thousands. Four Russian peacekeepers, posted there under the terms of a UN agreement, were also killed. No doubt Saakashvili’s "military patriotic" courses, which are supposed to cover Georgian military history, will omit this little detail.
The rabid nationalist Saakashvili, whose virulent militarism is crippling Georgia economically, has decided to turn his country into a launching pad for NATO’s military operations, recently offering to host resupply bases for the NATO effort in Afghanistan. The Georgians have long campaigned for NATO membership – a cause championed by McCain and by the ever-energetic Georgian lobby in Washington. The same gang that championed NATO expansion in the immediate post-Soviet era – and won – are now poised to extend the long hand of the West deep into the steppes of Central Asia.
The selling of the Afghan war as a multilateral effort is intimately tied up with the momentum for NATO expansion, and Saakashvili’s offer of bases could gain him entry over the opposition of some NATO members – or, at the very least, some sort of preliminary status short of full membership. And then one could always make the argument that if Albania can join, well then why not Georgia – or Azerbaijan, or any of the other post-Soviet Central Asian kleptocracies that have sprung up around the Russian periphery?
Of the so-called colored revolutions that the US government actively encouraged and supported with overt funding and covert aid, Georgia’s was the exemplar cited as a model for the others. In the end, however, this US-supported "revolution" turned into the dictatorship of a near megalomaniac, the would-be Napoleon of the Caucasus, who represses his own people while posing as a great liberator. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.