Not to add to apocalyptic associations with the year 2020, but we now find ourselves officially in the Year of the Rat, according to the Chinese calendar — characterized by chaos. Thanks only to my obscure interest in the Balkans, sparked in 1999 by the shock that a war could be started by the world’s superhero nation and my family’s refuge from inhumanity, I learned the Serbian word for war: rat.
We’re already off to a rocky start with the siege of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq that culminated in our assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. It remains to be seen whether Russia will cash in its Western-rejection chips and back Iran, but one takes heart from Vladimir Putin‘s phone call just days earlier thanking President Trump for intelligence that helped prevent attacks in Russia.
Recall that the last Year of the Rat — 2008 — brought some disorienting surprises. Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to a practical unknown, who went on to beat out a senior senator and reputed war hero for top office. In the midst of it all was a Cold War proxy battle in the small Caucasus nation of Georgia that caught everyone, other than Balkans watchers, off guard.
It came just six months after the logical, but officially forbidden, extrapolation of the above-referenced war: Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.
Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama all paused along the campaign trail to uniformly hail the move and congratulate Albanians on their second state, while shellshocked Serbian officials had to be scraped off the U.N. floor. The American public missed the whole thing but six months later was forced to relearn the word “Kosovo” as we tried to sort out what it had to do with Georgia and who started the summer’s hostilities: Moscow or Tbilisi.
A distance of 12 years makes it easy to list Georgia as just one more example of “Russian aggression.” So, as those who claim to represent America’s interests seek to increase tensions this year in the Georgia 2.0 that is Ukraine — to potentially decisive proportions — we could do with a brief reminder of the Georgia affair, something that members of the Bush administration wanted to answer militarily. (We would have had to if President Bush and McCain had their way with Georgian membership in NATO.)
On Aug. 7, 2008, Georgia‘s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, ordered an assault to seize the autonomous, heavily Russian polity of South Ossetia, turning artillery on Russian peacekeepers co-guarding the capital, Tskhinvali. Having warned that Kosovo would be a green light for other disputed territories, the Russians were ready — and their tanks routed Mr. Saakashvili’s troops. The brief war was accompanied by some standard logistical oddities, such as the presence of U.S. military personnel in South Ossetia at the time, as well as that of Vice President Dick Cheney’s deputy assistant for national security affairs shortly before. Add McCain’s personal friendship with Mr. Saakashvili, and there was little chance the gambit was made without U.S. foreknowledge. While we ultimately didn’t get involved (other than sending ammunition, flying in Georgian peacekeepers from Iraq, training and equipping Georgian troops for years, and later choosing Georgia to host NATO military exercises), there was a “benefit”: The imbroglio helped distract an unconvinced regional public from Poland’s signing of the Aug. 20 agreement to host our missile defense shield. It also demonstrated why such a shield was “necessary.”
Despite confirmations from the State Department, U.S. intelligence agencies and independent media that Tbilisi had aggressed, Mr. Bush grandstanded, without a hint of Balkans irony, saying “Russia has invaded a sovereign state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.”
Meanwhile, our nobility took to its favorite hobby of drawing shallow analogies from deep historical events, comparing the Russian response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The lunacy of the Western take, with corporate media not batting an eyelash at the Georgian offensive until Russia stepped in, brought even Mikhail Gorbachev out of submission to pen a New York Times op-ed titled “Russia Never Wanted a War.” He called the charge of Russian aggression “not just hypocritical but show[ing] a lack of humanity. … The planners of this campaign clearly wanted to make sure that, whatever the outcome, Russia would be blamed for worsening the situation.”
Meanwhile, grumbling something about “affront to civilized standards,” Mr. Cheney hustled off to Georgia — and Ukraine.
Fast-forward to 2014 Ukraine, and the characters changed but the script didn’t: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said about Russia in Crimea, without a hint of Balkans irony. He added that President Obama “has all options on the table,” including military.
It’s no secret that the Western-facilitated Euromaidan coup ousted a democratically elected government in favor of a Moscow-hostile regime garnished with Nazis. Local Russians held a referendum to part ways with Ukraine, but the war is cited as Russian aggression. The “Russian aggression” then takes on a life of its own as official history and produces thousands of headlines such as “Russia‘s next land grab will be in Europe” and “Is Belarus Putin‘s next land grab?”
Before the obfuscation of all things Russia deepens — assuming it can go any lower — it must be underscored that our side, which is not on our side, can yet prevent potentially cataclysmic hostilities during an iconic year or else be exposed for not wanting to, so that the American public can at least know its expendability.
The forward-only nature of foreign policy doesn’t help, of course. It never pauses, it never reevaluates — not even in a year that connotes 20/20 hindsight, something we’ll wish we had before it is too late. If only we could make use of clear sight when it’s offered, we wouldn’t have to wait until it’s in our hindsight. Mr. Obama is often mocked for one thing he shouldn’t be: for having seemed to want a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.
Absurdly, that March 2009 episode is often cited by the entrenchment as having emboldened Russia.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, pontificated in November, “The reason Crimea was invaded was because Obama and Clinton had her go over there with a red plastic button … and the message there that Putin got very clearly is, ‘Look, we know Bush overreacted when you invaded Georgia and he did all these sanctions. Well, we want a reset; we won’t overreact when you invade anything.’”
It’s as if intentions for a real reset haven’t since been proved a charade a dozen times over. Perhaps that, congressman, is the reason Mr. Putin is no longer taking our military buildup on his borders lying down.
Did anyone else notice that the “reset” gift, pinched from a hotel hot tub, was red and yellow? All that was missing was the hammer and sickle.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pressed the button together, “a move that summoned up thoughts not of easing tension but of launching a nuclear strike,” David S. Cloud observed in Politico at the time.
Could it be that the numbing number of wars the U.S. has engaged in since century’s turn was meant to deaden us to the big one with Russia? Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yugoslavia were all friendly with Russia when we attacked them.
We can yet avoid this becoming the Year of the War, if only we could smell a rat.
⦁ Julia Gorin was a Soviet Refusenik who came to the U.S. in 1976. She is editor of “Hillarisms: The Unmaking of the First Female President.”