Since the Second World War, the “good war,” people seem to demand unambiguously just wars. So each new conflict provokes attempts to find parallels to Hitler and the Nazis. In the Persian Gulf war, Bush the elder called Saddam Hussein worse than Hitler. The Bosnian war had camps, emaciated prisoners and alleged genocide. Now, in Georgia, President Mikhail Saakashvili says Russian troops are “pushing people into concentration camps” with “World War II-type and Baltic-type ethnic cleansing.” He told Katie Couric the Russians are “an insult to humanity.” In other words, inhuman monsters like guess who. Russia replies that Georgia attacked first with a “blitzkrieg.”
It doesn’t really work since the Nazis were pretty much sui generis in their technologized savagery and racist justification. Ethnic cleansing, for instance, used to be called population transfer and was common. It is cruel and despicable, but it’s not Auschwitz. Such acts are frequent in foreign policy, routinely cloaked by attempts to claim moral status that are obviously hypocritical.
Take the Georgia conflict. Russia supports autonomy in the ethnic regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but denies it for Chechnya. The U.S. backs separation for Kosovo, but rejects it in the Georgia cases. It praises democracy in Georgia, but in Iraq ignores a democratically elected government’s call for it to leave. And Georgia’s President is a democrat who suppresses protest in his streets. The claims about fighting the good fight are fig leaves, even Hitler mouthed them. South Ossetia’s beleaguered 70,000 people? Barely table stakes for some real politics. What are the true stakes?
These tend to appear lower down in the stories and press releases. Georgia’s leader, says Reagan-era official Paul Craig Roberts, is a “U.S. puppet.” He studied in the U.S. on State Department fellowships, worked at a New York law firm, his government’s election was subsidized by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’s Open Society Institute. He put a George W. Bush Boulevard in his capital. He admits this “is not about Georgia … It is about America, its values.” The U.S.? It wants to ring Russia militarily and move Caspian oil through Georgia so as to bypass Iran and Russia.
Russia wants to assert itself in the ‘hood, like any great power. It uses autonomy movements in Georgia as “daggers” to threaten the U.S. oil strategy, says energy expert Michael Klare. It differs from the U.S. mainly in that the U.S. considers the Caucasus, the Mideast and the rest of the world all as its “sphere” of “national interest.” None of this involves confronting a new Hitler, it might as well be the Boer War or the Indian mutiny. Welcome to the 19th century.
When it comes to foreign policy, Noam Chomsky says, the rule is, all governments lie. There may be exceptions, but not among big powers. Does this mean a nasty retreat to cynicism? It seems counterintuitive to never trust anyone. But governments aren’t individuals, they’re institutions. You aren’t giving up on “people,” you’re adopting a stand toward public bodies. Start from honest skepticism, and you might get somewhere.
Even the Second World War wasn’t so unambiguous. It was hardly “good,” in its barbaric course and deathly results. It had to be fought at that point, but it could have been avoided if the West had acted earlier — far earlier than Munich. Instead, Hitler was indulged, in the hope that he’d destroy the “contagious” example of Soviet communism.
When the Allied powers did go to war, it was mainly for traditional geopolitical reasons — Hitler had overreached — although war was justified by pointing at Nazi atrocities, much as the Kaiser was vilified in the First World War. Hitler was bad but they weren’t so good. It was another foreign-policy lie, although in Hitler’s case, a true one.