August 31, 2008

Missing from most of the commentary on the brief war in Georgia was any mention of the contorted use of language in Western news coverage and opinion writing.  While there have been some reasonable observers discussing the conflict in Georgia, most mainstream reporting and commentary have persistently described the conflict as the “rape” of Georgia in which its capital has been put under “siege” as part of a Russian expansionist effort (which is just part of a supposed pattern of Russian “expansionism”).  As it happened, even though Georgian infrastructure was unfortunately targeted during the week-long war, Georgia did not suffer much in the way of rapine and pillage when compared to other major campaigns in the last decade.  It is instructive to compare the damage wrought by the brief Russian incursion with the three-week bombing of Lebanon or the 78-day war against Serbia, since the extensive targeting of civilian infrastructure in the latter two conflicts began almost immediately and continued throughout.  Remarkably, the same military force that did lay waste to Chechnya acted with considerably greater restraint than either the IAF or NATO in their respective campaigns in recent years, but after a few days of fighting in Georgia Washington deemed the Russian response “disproportionate” when it had earlier memorably described the ruin of Lebanon as birth pangs of a new Middle East. 

Obviously, Tbilisi was never under siege in any but the most figurative of meanings, nor was there any Russian conquest of lands they did not already control earlier this month, which did not stop George Will from declaring the conflict to be Russia’s “war of European conquest.”  Most common, of course, was the phrase “Russian aggression,” which was both imprecise in describing the escalation of hostilities and laughable when it came from the mouths of the most ardent defenders of multiple unprovoked invasions and bombing campaigns.  Most extraordinary was the deployment of the term expansionist, which reporters and pundits did not use to describe Georgian irredentism and Saakashvili’s efforts to retake territories lost to Tbilisi for over 15 years, but instead they used it to describe Russian military efforts to shore up the separatist regions that Moscow had been using as proxies in the region during the same period.  It seems quite common now to throw the labels revanchist and revisionist at Russia, when once again it was the Georgian government that was attempting to revise the status quo and engage in the very definition of revanchism, which is to take revenge for past humiliation and defeat.  The absurdity of applying the label expansionist to Russia was all the more clear when one considered that one of the most important proximate causes of the latest round of tensions in the Caucasus was the offer to expand NATO to include Georgia.  Naturally, Mr. Bush was on hand soon to declare that the “days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us,” by which he meant, of couse, that the days of other powers trying to undermine our satellite states and interfere in our sphere of influence were supposed to be at an end.

The issue here is not simply the use of double standards that change depending on the government waging the war, important as that may be, but the appalling abuse of language that takes place in the service of a party line.  The problem is familiar enough to critics of the distorting effects of ideology and propaganda, but it seems telling that very few Western observers even seem to be aware that most people in the West are participating in such distortions with abandon when it comes to Russia.  It is little wonder that Russia policy has been confused and dangerous for many years when most in the West cannot even call things by their proper names.


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