Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Georgia's frontier justice
Clear good guys and bad guys are always nice to have. In the old b-movie westerns it was always comforting —you could tell them apart by the color of their cowboy hats and, as a result, you knew who to root for. As the six guns were drawn and the bullets started flying, you didn't have to mourn the death of the guys dressed in dark colors. When the good guys shot them the bad guys seemed to die obligingly —never evincing so much pain as to elicit sympathy —hardly even any blood.
Reality can be just a bit more challenging.
The situation in Georgia, for some it provides a new chapter in a similarly clear moral drama of good vs. evil. There is some thrill now that Sunday morning opinion shows can once again be animated with the same certainty enjoyed in those Saturday afternoon movies. Obama can be criticized for using "non-committal" language like "violence" to describe what was first happening, while McCain "more decisively" called it brutal Russian aggression. The current administration can outperform them both —in the names it calls.
There are of course some other colors behind the black and white imagery.
Russia pounds away at Georgia and the first perception is that of the 'Evil Empire' imposing its will upon a brave fledgling democracy. Look one layer beyond that and you find that Georgia itself had been trying to impose its will on the still smaller separatist region of South Ossetia. As Russia points to violence inflicted upon the region's civilians by Georgia and calls it "genocidal," Georgian leaders point to displaced Georgian refugees as those aggrieved by the separatists in past ethnic cleansings guided by Russian hands.
There is, of course, the temptation to use any complexity or moral ambiguity to the situation as reason for inaction. Who, indeed, wants to send their child to a war in the Caucuses? To defend what or who from who or what? Russia has tried to draw an equivalency between their "rescue" of the South Ossetians and advocacy for their autonomy with NATO and U.S. support for a separate Kosovo. Who can challenge that assertion? —Especially when it's backed up by the discharge of weaponry?
There is a difference though.
In Kosovo, the U.S. and NATO intervened to stop a violent crackdown on a separatist region, but then, working through the U.N., set about a careful process of stabilizing the region and seeing to a process of non-violent and uncoerced self determination for the Kosovars.
Perhaps that's the problem —not that there is a tangled history of conflict at issue in Georgia, but that the methods chosen to untangle things, by both Georgians and Russians, involve more violence than wisdom, more brutal force than basic compassion.
And what then are we supposed to do? Bring another six gun to the shoot out? Name call and cheer lead from behind a barrel? Or is there something useful we can build? —something for a better day beyond frontier justice?
There are those who deride the costly and dangerous tasks involved with "nation building" —who are impatient with the arduous international diplomacy involved with resolving regional and ethnic conflict. The mere thought of objective standards for international justice makes them shudder. They prefer the "simpler" task of siding the good against the bad or ugly.
Would that it was just that easy.