A little more than a year ago, Russia and Georgia were at war over Georgia’s small autonomous republic of South Ossetia. We now have two authoritative reports — one from late 2008 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE ) and the other just released by the European Union — which agree that the war was launched by Georgia, not Russia. Georgian troops suddenly attacked Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, on the night of Aug. 7-8, 2008, and Russia then retaliated with force.
Yet at the time of the conflict, U.S. and British officials and media were almost unanimous in condemning Moscow. According to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.”
The Washington Post called on the United States and NATO to “impose a price on Russia.” In the same paper, the politically connected American commentator Robert Kagan said Russia’s actions in Georgia resembled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, writing later in the London Times, compared it to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Both the London Times and the Financial Times were scathing in their editorials.
True, both the EU and OSCE note long-festering problems in South Ossetia. Moscow had done little to discourage the pro-Russian Ossetian majority there from seeking independence from Georgia and the resulting frictions with the Georgian minority. But both reports also confirm the one-sidedness and viciousness of the eventual Georgian attack.
According to the senior OSCE representative in Georgia, when the war broke out, “it was clear to me that the [Georgian] attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation.” Some see the subsequent Russian attack into Georgia as excessive. But was the 1991 U.S. attack into Iraq to punish Baghdad for its attack on Kuwait and to weaken its capacity for further attacks excessive?
The rush to anti-Russian judgment in the South Ossetia affair was dangerous. The Russians themselves knew what happened — a number of their officials had been killed outright the night of the Tskhinvali attack. Does anyone gain from these seemingly deliberate distortions of events?
Sadly, this kind of question is usually the last to be asked in this kind of situation. It is assumed automatically that our side is in the right and theirs is wrong, that our hearts are pure and theirs much more dubious.
I first saw these conflict-creating distortions at work, back in October 1962, when I was China desk officer in Canberra. Indian forces had launched a border attack into the Thagla Ridge of China — an incident that closely resembled the South Ossetia affair. I had the maps and on-the-spot information that made it clear India was at fault.
None of this made any impression on the powers that be. They had decided that China’s subsequent and forceful retaliation against India was unprovoked aggression, and that was that. The media and other opinion-making agencies went along with them. Severe damage was done to any attempt at an intelligent policy toward Beijing.
As Henry Kissinger later admitted, the image of inherent Chinese aggressiveness created by this distortion did much to influence the U.S. decision to intervene with force in Vietnam. Today, more than 40 years later, that image still bedevils Sino-Indian relations.
In 1964 we were told that North Vietnam had threatened U.S. warships in the Tonkin Gulf, when in fact it was the other way round. That fiction would allow further Vietnam intervention.
Then came the 1989 Tiananmen affair with Beijing accused of massacre when in fact the fighting, and the killing, began when anti-regime citizens attacked initially unarmed troops sent to end students’ long occupation of Beijing’s central square.
For much of the 1990s we had the obviously concocted claims about the Iraq of Saddam Hussein harboring weapons of mass destruction. American and British media in general went along with the fiction. We now see the dreadful results.
In Kosovo the ethnic cleansing of Serbs and other minorities by ethnic Albanians was turned 180 degrees to become Serbian ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians. That distortion would allow NATO to bomb Serbia, the U.S. to gain yet another military base overseas, and the ethnic Albanians to complete their cruel expulsions of Kosovo minority peoples.
We are seeing more of the same over Iran. The nations that today demand that Iran turn into our kind of democracy are exactly the same as those that intervened back in 1953 to prevent Iran from turning into our kind of democracy. Iran has been struggling with the consequences ever since. Iran, unlike Egypt or many other U.S. friends in the Middle East, at least holds elections.
American media indignation over the tragic Darfur refugee situation led to the Sudanese government being accused of war crimes, even though the problems there were created by a genuine civil war situation.
In Somalia we have a far worse refugee situation. For more than a decade, that nation has been thrown into chaos, mainly by the U.S. as it supported warlords, semi-puppet governments and a brutal foreign intervention to suppress any forces seen as anti-U.S. or pro-Islamist. Refugee children are said to be dying in the thousands. Do we hear any talk of war crimes there?
How many more people must suffer before our media and officials begin to do their homework and discover the need for impartiality in foreign affairs?
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and government official, long involved with Chinese, Japanese and Russian affairs. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net