Thursday, August 28, 2008

Medvedev: Why I Did It

In the Financial Times of 27 Aug 08, Russian President Medvedev explains why “he” (actually Putin, the power behind the throne, as we know), invaded Georgia, pried loose the two territories of South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, then, alone among leaders in the world, recognized them as independent states.

He says that the people of those two regions freely expressed their desire for independence from Georgia in the past, although that hardly justifies an invasion.

The Russian Federation, he explains, "is a harmonious coexistence of many dozens of nations and nationalities, not all of which have their own statehood." “After the collapse of communism, Russia reconciled itself to the loss of 14 former Soviet republics, which became states in their own right, even though some 25 million Russians were left stranded in countries no longer their own.”

But were they ever “their own” if they were republics in the Soviet Union? It is a little slippery to speak in one breath of “republics” (constitutional governments) and of “countries” (not defined), and of “nations” (not defined), and to suggest that their "federation" with the Soviets was ever voluntary.

“Georgia “stripped” the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia of their autonomy,” he says. But isn’t that just another way of saying they were no longer part of the Soviet Union? Medvedev implies that these were formerly autonomous countries under the Soviets, although the extent of their autonomy during those times is suspect. Was Hungary "autonomous" in 1956?

However, it is true that in repossessing these regions from Soviets after 1989, the Georgians have acted with a heavy hand, treating the ethnic Russians as second class citizens, outlawing their language, cultural traditions, schools, etc. (exactly as the Soviets had treated the Georgians for 70 years).

Finally, says Medvedev, the newly independent Georgia “inflicted a vicious war on its minority nations.” Russian peacekeepers tried to keep things calm, he says, but Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili “made no secret of his intention to squash the Ossetians and Abkhazians.” ("Squash"?) Finally on August 7, Saakashvili invaded south Ossetia. “Only a madman could have taken such a gamble,” says Medvedev.

“Russia had no option but to crush the attack to save lives. This was not a war of our choice,” he says. “We have no designs on Georgian territory.”

(Click to enlarge this ethnic map).

Then he claims that “The presidents of the two republics appealed to Russia to recognize their independence.” There is no evidence of that beyond his word. And how is it that these territories are once again “republics” in his mind, since he said earlier that they had been “stripped” of their autonomy by the Georgians? And anyway, what sort of political standing does the leader of a province of Georgia have to request a foreign country to recognize its independence?

If the governor of Louisiana, for example, appealed to France to “recognize” its independence from the U.S., would that have any force in international law?

But “based on [unspecified] documents of international law,” he says, Medvedev reluctantly (he would have us believe) agreed to recognize the two regions’ independence from Georgia.

In justification, he notes that just a few years ago, “ignoring Russia’s warnings, western countries rushed to recognize Kosovo’s illegal declaration of independence from Serbia.” Is it tit for tat then? Medvedev conveniently overlooks the fact that the Kosovar Albanians were being slaughtered by the Serbs.

Today, the Christian Science Monitor ( reports that according to Medvedev, the Georgians were slaughtering ethnic Russians in an equivalent genocide. But there is simply no evidence of that.

It seems pretty obvious that the real reasons for the invasion and re-annexation of these two regions to Russia were 1. Longtime personal enmity between Putin and Shaakashvili (if you don’t think that’s a good enough reason to invade, look at the US in Iraq), 2. Russia’s desire to control the oil and gas resources in the breakaway regions, especially the pipelines to Europe, and 3. Petulant retaliation for the expansion of NATO and the installation of anti-missile sites in Poland.

What perplexes me is why Medvedev felt he must weave an elaborate story that pretends to some high moral ground, when the motivation for the Russian action was plain thuggery. Why couldn’t Medvedev just say, “We wanted those regions; we had the power to take them, so we did.” And he could add, “Neener, neener!” if he wanted to.

Who is fooled by his transparent self-justification?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Was Hillary Right?

I am surprised to see recent polls showing McCain and Obama going into their conventions virtually tied among the voting public (NY 8/20, Fox 8/21). How can that be possible? When I see the candidates on the evening news, I see one man as the picture of Enlightenment clear thinking, rationality, sincerity, and compassion; the other a grotesque self-caricature sputtering empty slogans.

McCain yesterday vowed that he would bring the troops home from Iraq “with honor and victory,” while, he said, Obama prefers forfeiture. Does McCain think the war is an Olympic event? What is “victory?” Didn’t we achieve victory 24 hours after invading the country in 2003? What is forfeiture? Returning a sovereign country to its rightful owners? I cannot fathom how his mind works when he talks like that.

Voters polled said McCain was more prepared to be commander in chief. But why? Haven’t they read his Foreign Affairs article? ( It is frightening. Wouldn’t we rather have a pro-peace president?

Of course voters have not read McCain’s Foreign Affairs article, or much of anything else either, and that’s the problem. Obama may be too far out in front of the crowd to be a natural leader. You can’t lead from a mountaintop; only from five paces ahead. And maybe Hillary was that leader. Maybe I was wrong about her. I have a long history of being a contrary indicator.

The Demo convention will be a tragedy if the pro-Clinton forces and the roll call vote turn into an anti-Obama self-indulgence. I think “Barry” (as Maureen Dowd calls him) could overcome such a fiasco and go on to win in November because the choice is so stark that I do not believe many voters will change sides. This is rural vs urban, educated vs uneducated, and that’s not going to change. But it could hurt turnout, which Obama must have oceans of.

It may be that Hillary was right insisting that she was the “electable” candidate. Looking back at the primaries now, where she won big, she may have been right.

I still believe Obama would be a president of a higher order, like this country has not seen in two or three generations; while another self-obsessed Clinton White House would be excruciating and dangerous for America. But the first step in the recipe for making rabbit stew is 1: Catch a rabbit.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Obama Gets Oily

According to the Los Angeles Times, ( politics/la-na-campaign5-2008aug05, 0,4069072.story), Barack Obama said today that the nation should draw down its strategic oil reserves to lower the price of gasoline, and that he has also recently agreed that some offshore drilling might be acceptable.

He will surely get the flip-flop badge of the week.

Historically, every time the strategic oil reserves have been tapped, gasoline prices have dropped soon thereafter. Voters want lower gasoline prices, so it would seem to be an easy, cheap palliative gesture, with the added virtues that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been calling for such a move, and President Bush is against it. Points are scored all around.

But releasing strategic oil is not an energy strategy, only a symbolic gesture. Gasoline prices are falling anyway. A little more relief would be welcome, but the oil-reserves effect would be a blip, and do nothing for the strategic problem. The same can be said for “drilling on the beaches.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle ( cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/ 2008/07/22/MN6M11SN60.DTL) there might be 11 years worth of oil on the US continental shelf, based on federal government estimates, 12% of it off the coast of California, the rest in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. But since offshore drilling has been banned since 1982, in memory of the horrible oil spill at Santa Barbara in 1969, the estimates are not solid.

The compromise energy proposal released by the "Gang of 10" senators just before the summer recess would allow drilling off Virginia and other areas of the southeast (with states' permission), and provide substantial funding for alternative energy and conservation. Obama favors this proposal.

It is widely acknowledged by everyone, even drill nuts and oil companies, that opening the shorelines to drilling could not possibly have any effect on gasoline prices before 2030. To call for offshore drilling “to lower prices at the pump,” during an election campaign, is nothing but poll-driven pandering. So what is Obama up to?

I think he is up to poll-driven pandering. I hate to see him do it. If he really was determined that America “break its addiction to oil,” as he says on his web site, he would be content to leave the price of gasoline high and instead, emphasize a rehabilitation plan. But American voters are not strategic. They are “all me, right now.”

The good news is that Obama is getting some political experience. My greatest doubt about him is whether he actually realizes that not everyone is rational. In fact, most people are not. It is futile, actually counterproductive, possibly dangerous, to confront irrationality with reason. Most people react on the basis of emotion, habit, tradition, and superstition. Obama’s recent policy shift is a sign that if he did not know that before, he is learning it now.

I have the same doubts about him in the foreign policy arena, when he sometimes talks as if he thinks he can sit down and work out international differences over a cup of coffee. Does he really not understand that there are people who cannot be spoken to? I worry that he suffers from the delusion that most people will respect evidence and reason. That would make for a disastrous presidency.

Obama’s campaign may be stalled. He still trails the Democratic Party in the polls by double digits, which means he is not really seen as the leader of the Democratic party. And the reason, I think, is that voters keep him at emotional arm’s length. Sure, he is likeable and smart, that is obvious. But only when he responds to popular concerns with political gestures that directly acknowledge and meet those concerns, voters can believe, “he gets it.”

Obama's new policy tack is not even about oil. It has nothing to do with gasoline prices. It’s about demonstrating, showing, not just saying, “I feel your pain.”

Obama needs to do more of that. He needs to show that he is not a Promethean god who would bestow wisdom, but a normal man who sometimes acts from fear, pride, pain, anxiety, and other irrational motives, “like me.”

Look how far irrational reactivity got George W. Bush. Irrationality often leads to heartbreak, of course, but Obama needs to let just a little of it leak out in a controlled way. His recent shifts in energy policy, superficial though they are, may be just the prescription.