Are We All Georgians? Not So Fast

As the Democrats open their convention today, it might not be politically correct to ask the question — were the Russians entirely wrong and Georgia entirely right in their conflict over South Ossetia?

In this context, it is also fair to ask whether the putative Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), was exercising good judgment when he immediately called Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to express his support for Georgia and to declare, apparently referring to all Americans, "We are all Georgians."

Maybe it's the contrarian in me: When virtually every Democratic and Republican leader from left to right and the entire mainstream media so quickly reach consensus on the same one-sided narrative — the "good little democracy Georgia" vs. the "bad Russian evil-empire invaders" — I instinctively say to myself, "Not so fast. What are the facts?"

Or, as Paul Harvey famously put it, what about "the rest of the story"?

It wasn't easy to find such contrarian facts. It took some effort — at least several days into the crisis and usually buried on the inside page far down in the stories. Here are a few facts I discovered that I hadn't known from most of the early media coverage and political comments:

* Georgia, not Russia, initiated the first military actions on Aug. 7 by sending (according to The Wall Street Journal) "much of its army up to the area of Tskhinvali, the capital of its pro-Russian South Ossetian province," including tanks, armored personnel carriers, howitzers and other equipment.

* The State Department's specialist on Georgia, Matthew J. Bryza (again, according to the Journal) and many other officials warned Mr. Saakashvili many times over a period of months against military action that might provoke the Russians. But Mr. Saakashvili ignored the advice and, "undeterred, ordered troops to take Tshkinvali ... and to knock out the bridge."

* South Ossetians speak a different language from Georgians, have a different culture, have a government headed by a Russian, historically have been close to Russia and have sought separation from Georgia — similar to another "separatist" region of Georgia, Abkhazia.

* When the U.S. last spring recognized Kosovo's secession from Serbia, despite Kosovo having been long recognized as part of Serbia and over the strong objections of Serbia and Russia, Serbia's historic ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned way back then that "Russia will feel entitled to do the same with South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway enclave, Abkhazia," according to The New York Times.

To my relief, people a lot more informed than I have begun to express doubts about the one-sided political-media narrative of the first few days. Noted author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman, with an analogy to the Olympics, awarded a "silver medal for recklessness" to Mr. Saakashvili for his unilateral decision to push his troops into South Ossetia.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Nobel Prize-winning former Soviet premier most responsible for the unraveling of the Soviet Union and a hero of most Americans’, went on U.S. national TV to warn against U.S. one-sidedness and anti-Russian bias in this Georgian crisis.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute in Washington, worried about the overly quick U.S. pro-Georgia/anti-Russia response that could "jeopardize Russian cooperation on a number of issues" — such as efforts to deter Iran from developing a nuclear bomb — "over a dispute that at most involves limited American interests."

And James F. Collins, the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and now a director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The New York Times: "It's clear the policies we have pursued regarding missile defense and installations in Europe [and] regarding further expansion of NATO have created difficulties with Russia. It takes two to tango."

I write this knowing that some will accuse me of being "soft on Russia," even though I tend to agree with Mr. Friedman's award of the "gold medal for stupidity" to Mr. Putin for his brutal use of military force rather than diplomacy.

But as the Democratic National Convention assembles to nominate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for president, I hope its speakers — and Mr. Obama too — would not yield to the temptation to prove that Democrats can be more unconditionally pro-Georgia and anti-Russia and bellicose than Mr. McCain.

Not only would this simply compound the inaccurate and over-simplistic portrayal of the facts of a complex and dangerous situation, but, I submit, it would be wrong politically.

It is my strong hunch that the majority of the American people — including a lot of undecided voters in the presidential election — don't like saber-rattling that could bring us back to the scary days of the Cold War. They want their next president to be firm but fair in dealing with the Russians.

It can be argued that it was a similar "rush to judgment" on the existence of weapons of mass destruction that led us to a "rush to war" in Iraq. It would be poor politics — and even more dangerous policy — to repeat that mistake when it comes to the formidable nuclear power of Russia.


Lanny Davis is a Washington lawyer and a political analyst for Fox News. From 1996 to 1998, he served as special counsel to President Clinton. From 2005 to 2006, he served on President Bush's five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

This piece appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, Aug. 25.