Saturday, August 16, 2008

South Ossetia Update, Editorial, 16 Aug 2008

Yesterday, August 15, 2008, the Newshour with Jim Lehrer had an excellent analysis of the crisis brewing between Russia, Georgia, the breakaway province of South Ossetia (apparently pronounced by one speaker as "Oh-see'-shah" rather than "Oh-set'-ee-yah"). Margaret Warner and the others on the NewsHour team did a great job of putting the crisis in perspective. PBS has a remarkable and clear perspective for those interested in a good overview.

In the analysis on Thursday, there was a discussion of how lower-level State Department professionals had warned the Georgian government to not try to retake South Ossetia. Yet some neo-conservatives had given mixed signals to support the endeavor.

Also, there were postulations Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili felt forced to act, because Russia had been treating South Ossetia as a de facto annexed territory already: issuing passports, locals posting signs reading “Putin, Our President,” and so on. If Saakashvili hadn’t acted at all, South Ossetia was as good as lost. In fact, it may already have been lost, and in a way, he used the crisis to highlight to the world how Russian irredentism and increasing nationalism can chip away at democratic nations.

This is not to paint a “good versus evil” story of what is going on. Georgia did violate a cease fire. They did roll across into South Ossetia and renewed hostilities. The Russians were prepared for a massive counterattack. Pre-positioned troops rapidly rolled through Georgia and effectively decapitated government control. To me it seemed like one of those famous samurai iajutsu duels of the days of bushido. But on a national level. Perhaps it could also be likened to a Wild West gunslinger duel.

A smaller country, feeling threatened, draws first. Then the other warrior, already prepared, trained and blooded through prior experience, draws their own weapon and ends the conflict with a massive, bloody and conclusive retaliation. Is this bullying?

In some circles, this is being seen as a bit of tit-for-tat. The US helped pry Kosovo out of Serbia. So perhaps Russia can help pry South Ossetia and Abkhazia away from Georgia? Some global political sauce for the goose? In this light, of the great game, the pawns are being taken off the board one-by-one. Gravestones are marking where these pawns of power, sentenced to death to score points, once lived.

Reading an article in the August 15th edition of the San Mateo County Times by Nancy A. Youssef, Tom Lasseter, and Dave Montgomery for the McClatchy Newspapers pointed out a key strategic flaw of the Bush administration plan to intervene in this crisis. At first, President Bush wanted to use US warships and aircraft to deliver relief supplies. Apparently this news surprised the Turkish government.

Since Turkey controls access to the Bosphorus, the US ships and planes could not pass en route to Georgian relief without the Turkish government’s permission.

Thus, for those who agree with this status quo equilibrium outcome, Turkey has, for all intents, sided against Georgia and in Russia’s favor, even if tacitly or implicitly. The Bush administration, by failing to include a NATO ally in the pre-planning of relief efforts, or overriding concerns of Ankara, was described in the article as having jumped the gun. A wince-inducing analogy which seems all too apropos.

The mission of Global Understanding is only in part to sort through how things started. The real work comes in figuring out how to get this to end.

For those who find the present situation unacceptable, the question is how would not just the United States, but all of NATO wish to respond to this situation. It seems France, and the EU overall, is ahead of the United States in positioning leaders towards a solution. The United States is too close politically to one of the parties in the dispute (Georgia) to act as a neutral broker. Likewise, its longstanding direct rivalry with Russia means the US are far more likely to end up one of the belligerents in the dispute, especially if declared intents of support (food, and likely covert intelligence and aid) to the Georgian government find some other route to reach their destination.

Turkey Shoot

The isolated position of Georgia has been highlighted by the recalcitrance of Turkey to permit US relief operations. Soldiers from Ossetia, a bit overenthusiastic in having sufficient ammunition, fired at a civilian vehicle filled with Turkish journalists, nearly killing them. The Turks, while under fire, shot back with the only thing they had: cameras. I pray for all those who bravely go into harm’s way to find out the truth for the benefit of the rest of humanity.

For Turkey, this is a war in proximity of their borders. It would be as if people in the US northeast had to worry about a war spilling over from the Quebec border. (That’s just an example. I do not wish to give any extremist French Canadians any ideas towards that end. It is also a mindful example for one to consider just how safe these borders are, generally speaking.)

The soldiers looting Georgian property even joke about invading Turkey next. Reading the analysis, one must agree that Turkey is in a tough dilemma over South Ossetia.

CENTCOM Responsibility and Lack of Response

This crisis falls into the USCENTCOM mission, the same geographic purview as Iraq and Afghanistan. Some questions were raised in 2007 with the appointment of Admiral Fallon to take over from General Abizaid, who is of Lebanese heritage and has U.N. peacekeeping experience. Whereas Fallon is an “offensive” commander who helped lead NATO operations in Bosnia in the 1990s. At least, that was what he seemed to be. At the time of his oppointment, the concern was an offensive strike at Iran. Yet in March 2008, Admiral Fallon resigned, apparently over resistance to support a more belligerent stance towards Iran. See also CNN’s coverage of the incident.

However, if the United States can be shut down on a humanitarian relief operation to Georgia (a country of 4.6 million souls) to stabilize the crisis of South Ossetia (with a population of roughly only 70,000) simply by the political closing of the Bosphorus due to the sensitivities of only one of our NATO allies, how would the US ever hope to invade Iran, a nation of 80 million?

Thus why so many believe that this is just a resuscitation of “The Great Game” — the war over central Asia played out between Russia, England, and other colonial powers of the 19th Century. Indeed, it is being dubbed “The Second Great Game.” Only in such games, people are dying, being shot at, wounded and end up crippled for life as fortunes are made and lost with the release of each video feed.

Many people and nations are simply asking to not play this game to its conclusion. Or to conclude it as soon as possible with the minimal negative consequences for neighboring states and peoples.

If This Had Been a Real War...

Why does American response seem so anemic? Is it merely that we have already overstretched our treasury and our troops to cover two simultaneous regional conflicts in Central Asia? What else is hampering matters on top of that?

An issue directly impacting USCENTCOM capability to respond is that it is being run by a temp. The acting commander of CENTCOM is US Army Lt. General Martin Dempsey, Admiral Fallon’s #2. He stepped in in 2007 to take over when the Admiral resigned, and was maintained in that role to date.

While Iraq was closely supervised by Gen. Petraeus, overall command of CENTCOM went to Gen. Dempsey. This is not to question Gen. Dempsey’s ability to lead, for he is surely a respected and capable career soldier, but to highlight his formal authority to lead, or lack thereof. He was never formally elevated to the office. This reveals a resistance of US military leadership to declare he is the right person for the job. He is being passed up for this promotion. Wikipedia reports (based, of course, on external sources) that Gen. Petraeus will be promoted from commander of Iraqi forces to commander of CENTCOM in September. We’ll see how that goes.

Yet for now, just as a temp at a company cannot legally or sociologically do certain things — they cannot sign binding contracts on behalf of a business in most cases, and they can be ignored if they say “I’m in charge!” — people do not psychologically expect an acting commander to do have the same authority as a permanent one.

They more or less expect an acting commander to maintain a status quo, even when matters require far more sophisticated problem solving and wide-ranging solutions than the situation warranted when the problem was given to them in the first place. Just as a temp might need to save the day when the building catches fire, an acting commander of a real-time military operation has to be able to get the responses they need, and not be met with inertia.

It is almost like a situation out of Catch-22.

“The building’s on fire! Follow me!”

“Who are you to tell me what to do? You’re a temp! You’re not the boss!”

“Would you rather die, or argue?”

“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady!”

This is a classic case of people who make the fallacy of appealing to authority (either their own or others above them) and not facing logic and common sense. It happens all the time. Like it or not, Gen. Dempsey has been and will treated as a temp. A “lame duck” general. Written off. Either consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, he’d have the full title. Right? Face it, he never got the formal nod. He’s been passed over. I am not sure why. He seems like a decent guy.

It is somewhat telling of how the Bush administration is managing the Global War on Terror if they left the CENTCOM seat open for so long under “acting” leadership between 11 March 2008 until September 2008. That’s six months.

During the American Civil War, it would have been like leaving the Army of the Potomac without a full commander from between the time of the New York Draft Riots (March 1863) to the Battle of Charleston Harbor (August-September 1863). There would have been an “acting” commander for Chancellorsville. An “acting” commander for Gettysburg. Lincoln would have calmly leaned over his desk and spoken something pithy and pointed to hurry matters along long before the Spring months had gone by.

In terms of World War II, it would have been the equivalent of having no full US commander in Europe between March 1943 to September 1943. No one, like Gen. Omar Bradley, fully in charge of Tunisia after the collapse of the Axis at Kasserine Pass. No one fully authorized to lead the clearing of Axis forces from North Africa through May. No one fully and formally authorized to plan and execute the invasion of Sicily in July. No one formally vested with the command position to plan the invasion of Taranto and Salerno, or to accept the Italian surrender in September.

President Roosevelt would have smiled that glorious yet crystal-clear smile and said, “I am sure you will solve this issue immediately, won’t you?” I can’t see the persistent and consistently organized Dwight D. Eisenhower waiting six months to make a choice.

Nor can I imagine any Congress so suicidally obstructionist as to leave the most important theater of operations officially leaderless just to spite an opposition party. In fact, they voted in favor of the appointment of General Petraeus in July. He got the promotion, but just hasn’t moved into his new executive position yet. A CEO’s corner office remains filled with a temp.

In terms of modern command decision-making, there should be little logical reason to leave such a vital office of command under the term “acting” unless inconvenient politics or personality issues are getting in the way. We can rule out politics, because the person for the job got it by an overwhelming vote.

Yet Gen. Petraeus made a personal choice, as commander there, to stay in Iraq for the summer, until mid-September. So there is some personal or personnel issues he feels uncomfortable to leave behind. That infers a possible inclination towards micromanagement. Otherwise, he’d just have gone upstairs with his new command and given Odierno Iraq to deal with. Gen. Petraeus could shift his focus to with wider perspective of dealing with a theater stretching from Georgia to Afghanistan. That would have made sense, wouldn’t it, especially as violence has been mostly stemmed and the strategic initiative seems to be moving away from Iraq?

If this had been a real war, one would have expected better, faster, more clear command decision-making cycles.

While the world’s snow caps are melting at record speeds, apparently our ability to think and make decisions in our nation’s capital and command centers is becoming so cold as to be glacial. Ironically, we still try to apply the term “superpower” to ourselves.

This is not to poke too much fun at the powers-that-be. But if someone gave me a new high-ranking job, I’d try not to take more than the weekend to think things through and move into my new digs at work.

Getting Along

Speaking of superpowers, much of this seems to be because Russia is not quite ready to cede that title as applied to itself. Much of what is going on is based in a resurgent nationalism and irredentism, as I have pointed out before.

So how are our leaders getting along with each other?

George Bush and Vladimir Putin sat next to each other at the ceremonial opening of the Beijing Olympic Games. Apparently they seemed mostly calm to the cameras discussing the Georgian invasion (or attempted recapture) of South Ossetia while the cute-as-a-button Chinese girl was lip-synching the patriotic theme for her country.

Others overheard a more heated discussion, including the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

I, for one, was both glad and alarmed to hear of these reports. I had spoken earlier in the week to a close relation of mine who was livid how Putin and Bush seemed to be getting along so famously. I would liken the venom towards the President of the United States sitting next to the Prime Minister of Russia as equivalent to the bile one might hurl at thoughts of a chummy reunion of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

This revealed a truth we all knew, similar to the faux friendship Hitler and Stalin might have shown for each other while it was politically expedient and advantageous for both: George Bush and Vladimir Putin only play at friendship for the cameras. The severe differences between them, and the stark similarities in terms of both wishing to amass and wield power, are now simply affirmed by a third party.

I am not accusing either of these men of being anything else than what their supporters elected them to be: the most nationalistic, driven, patriotic and power-brokering leaders of the two societies controlling the vast majority of nuclear munitions in the world.

Yet I am not going to fallaciously fall to Godwin’s law. As of yet, neither are Hitler nor Stalin. In comparison to true genocidal tyrants, both of these modern statesmen are rank amateurs. They are who they are. I am glad they are getting towards some levels of truth and talking directly to each other.

We have to speak truthfully to the Russians while also listening to their own concerns.

The Russians are feeling culturally vulnerable. The desire to rally around nationalistic and racial schemas are no different than any nation that turns to its past to remember its glory, and to gather the most passionate to do something to help improve their country.

Yet this sentiment is dangerous in any land, whether it is the Nazi party unifying a massively improverished Germany due to war reparations and depression, or a group of Islamic militant scholars who vow to drive away western influence in order to establish a republic of Islam on earth.

Ironically, before people proclaim how great America is, one may notice the domestic trend of xenophobia and racial hatred in the US. The UN even cited the US criminal justice system in March 2008 as exhibiting a pattern of racial bias. Our fears often map out to the areas in our country hardest hit by economic shocks caused by global capitalism and social shocks caused by massive immigration.

The EU has its own version of this in each member nation as well. It can be caused by feelings of disenfranchisment and culture clash, like the banlieue riots, or the Bridget Bardot case. These are intense human issues. Each culture undergoes this retrenchment when threatened. Some become more strident and militant than others, but all human cultures, and most animal cultures, will behave the same when threatened or provoked.

The way to step back from global crisis is to recognize these social pressures that are faced by each of the participants: from Georgia and South Ossetia to Russia, the US, Turkey, the EU and other proximately adjoining and affected states.

If we all recognize each nation has its pressures and we all call for calm, there is a chance peace will break out. We have to be extremely vigilant and principled to look for those who may and do abuse and self-centeredly manipulate such conditions. Check for the “prisoner’s dilemma” and other common maladaptive, neurotic and dangerous lose-lose or lose-win outcomes.

The possibility of the US going to war directly with Russia is ebbing slightly, yet can flare up dramatically any day. In a way, there is more pressure and tension building up between them. It could even be argued the Turkish equivocation to support the Bush planned intervention for humanitarian relief could embolden Russia and fuel future hostilities. Unless these social pressures between nation-states can be redirected, diffused, or dealt with progressively, one day they will finally come back to remind us of the warnings we had years before.

I suggest the discussions be hosted by a truly disinterested but major nation. Perhaps Brazil. Everyone should fill out the equivalent of a “Cosmo quiz” for self-assessment. My thoughts, for example, would survey these sorts of things:
  1. On a scale of 0 (not a problem at all) to 10 (they will exterminate us all), how fearful are the South Ossetians of the Georgian government?
  2. On a scale of 0 (not a problem at all) to 10 (we want to exterminate them all), how angry are the South Ossetians at the Georgian government?
  3. On a scale of 0 (not a problem at all) to 10 (they will exterminate us all), how fearful are the South Ossetians of the Georgian people?
  4. On a scale of 0 (not a problem at all) to 10 (we want to exterminate them all), how angry are the South Ossetians at the Georgian people?
And so on. Ask them specific questions as to their mineral rights. How poor or well-to-do are their communities? What is more important to provide next for relief? Food, water, shelter, etc. I just do not see sufficient metrics being taken to measure how happy, or unhappy, people are these days.

Perhaps we can do this sort of benchmarking before we start ordering carriers into action.

Take care!

(Edited 22 Aug 2008, 3:58 AM Pacific Time)

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