Montag, September 01, 2008

Humiliation, Georgia and Violence...

Martin Wolf, as always, has a good column in Sunday's FT (here).

The key point he makes:

For the truth is that it is not the west that has humiliated Putin's Russia, but the neighbours which the west rightly supports.

It is humiliating that the peoples who enjoyed the most prolonged and intimate acquaintance with the blessings of Russian imperialism rushed into the arms of the west, in general, and of the US, in particular. It is more than humiliating. It is dangerous. If such countries as Ukraine and Georgia make a success of liberal democracy, the position of the Russian elite itself would be endangered, at least in the long run.

How, after all, can one justify treating one's people like idiot children when their relatives next door are treated as grown-ups? How does one legitimise a state built on the old KGB principles of force and fraud? The opening up of Russian politics to free competition of ideas might follow. That would never do.

So the crushing of Georgia and, if possible, the removal of its president serves a vital interest not of Russia, but of its rulers. Whatever optimists might have hoped two decades ago, Russia has not made the transition to the fundamental western principle that the possession of stable, prosperous and democratic neighbours is beneficial. Russia still lives in a conceptual world of zero-sum relations, not only because it views international relations as based on a hierarchy of power, but because it has the same view of domestic politics. Imperialism and autocracy go together. To employ a useful Islamic terminology, the new Russia, alas, still lives in the "House of War".

While I might not always agree with Mr. Wolf on everything, he's right here.

The Georgian conflict serves only Putin's interests, nor Russia's.

After being humiliated, how does your average person in the West react? Usually with introspection and realization that they perhaps overstepped their bounds, that there are limits, that one shouldn't get into the same kind of situation again.

This is where not only Putin, but also Islamic fundamentalists react differently: when humiliated, they answer with violence, with the physical destruction of those who were fundamental to the humiliation. It's fundamentally an act of revenge, of avenging one's humiliation.

It is fundamentally the act of cowards and the insecure. Why?

Because there is no resolution of the problem: understanding why one was humiliated - a mixture of overreach and others' enjoyment of your displeasure - is key to understanding how to avoid it in the future.

Russia - more exactly, Putin - was humiliated by the West, as you can read here. Put bluntly, Clinton humiliated Putin by taking advantage of Russia's weakness: that was the core failure of the Clinton White House.

Russia remains, fundamentally, weak: it has an appalling demographic problem that will condemn it to undergo extremely painful reforms that may even see it lose territory, and while it did indeed defeat the fledgling Georgian army, it did not run its glorious little war with any of the high-tech toys that have proved their value in Iraq (no drones for tactical and micro-tactical reconnaissance, no Blue Force Trackers), but rather with the tools of the 1980s that the Russians appear finally to have mastered.

Now the problem is that Russia - or more exactly, Putin - is digging in, making things worse. Rather than learning from its errors - and the Martin Wolf column linked to covers these failures very well - it is repeating them, setting itself up for a further escalation.

What would happen, for instance, if Georgia were to turn the tables and instigate a new conflict, one where the Russians attempt the same kind of brute-force tactics that served so well now? If the Georgians were clever - and they are - and were to set up a large-scale ambush, with the sole goal of suckering in a large Russian unit into a killing zone (think stringing armored vehicles over a long, straight road and hitting 50 or 60 vehicles within 30 seconds with anti-tank missiles like the Javelin, which crosses 4-6 km in a very short time period (less than 15 seconds), effectively wiping out a Russian regiment within a few minutes) and then inflicting humiliating losses (Georgian troops would then effectively disappear, using terrain and countermeasures to avoid retribution), how would Russia - or more exactly, Putin - react?

Right now, only with more of the same. Humiliation an opponent is a very dangerous game: it is one of the reasons why, for instance, US forces during the Gulf War actually stopped pursuing Iraqi forces. They did so because the Iraqis had been thoroughly trounced and were, at that point, nothing more than moving targets. There is no need for professional soldiers to humiliate a defeated enemy.

But the reverse is not true. This is where the short-term political gain of Clinton has severely backfired, where deliberately humiliating the Russians has led to their current thuggish behavior: if the humiliated feel that they have nothing to lose, that they must try to destroy those who humiliated them, then they will try.

This is the same for terrorists. One of the fundamentals pushing Al-Quida and other Arab terrorists is the fact that they feel humiliated by globalization and the success of the West: after all, they have the "perfect" religion and the glories of the Arab past, but remain poor, virtually illiterate and incapable of bettering themselves. It is better to lash out at the winner of the competition - even if they weren't even aware that there was one - than to admit that they perhaps need to actually change.

Humiliating an opponent may bring short-term satisfaction, but it brings long-term risks that should not be trivialized. Russia's humiliation of Georgia will backfire on Russia when the Georgians take the high road and learn from their mistakes in order to be able to humiliate Russia if it tries to repeat its successes.

But that also makes the war in Georgia that worst of all situations, a war fought for no good reasons and fought for all the wrong reasons. It makes it a mistake, a meaningless war, a violent spasm rather than a conflict that always remain under political control.

And what other lessons are to be learned? That we are facing the same problem in Iran: while it may be, at some point, necessary to stop Iran from getting the bomb, humiliating Iran might be enjoyable, but leads to outcomes where Iran might feel it necessary to destroy Tel Aviv in order to avenge such humiliation.

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