Why Right-Wing Critics Are Wrong About Russia

Conservatives who attack President Obama over the "reset" are echoing Georgian propaganda and not addressing the real problem

5-days-of-war001-body.jpgProduction still from Five Days of War, a film about the 2008 South Ossetia War / Georgia International Films

Heritage scholar James Jay Carafano endorses the Georgia propaganda film "5 Days of War."

The film ends with testimonies from Georgians who lost family members in the war. "After I met a lot of refugees," Harlin said last night during a post-screening discussion of the movie at Washington's Landmark Theater, "I felt I had to tell their story. That's why we added the testimonials."

The liberal blogosphere is already attacking Harlin's film for being "anti-Russian." Though mainstream Hollywood embraced "Hotel Rwanda," a similar motion picture, it will likely turn its back on "5 Days of War." The difference: the latter implicitly calls into question Mr. Obama's decision to make nice with Moscow.

So, let's ignore the questionable moral equivalence of a five-day war that killed far fewer than a thousand people to a genocide that killed more than a million people during four horrifying months of systemic murder. We can probably safely assume Renny Harlin did not interview any Ossetians or Abkhazians for his film's recounting of horrors -- nor did he consult the sections of the Human Rights Watch report which also accused the Georgians of committing war crimes and illegally shelling Tshkinvali before the start of the war (an action which killed several Russian troops and which was the casus belli for a Russian response).

In other words, Carafano is starting his review from a pretty fundamentally dishonest perspective (he could have mentioned that Renny Harlin's film was actually sponsored by the government of Georgia, but that might get in the way of his narrative).

But it doesn't stop at the film. Carafano brings up the bombings in Georgia:

For example, recent allegations that the Russians engineered last year's bombing outside the U.S. Embassy in Georgia (at the same time the White House was pushing for ratification of a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty) quickly produced a squad of predictable skeptics. Writing for The Atlantic, Joshua Foust (a fellow at the American Security Project) suggested the whole thing may have been a frame-job by the Georgians. "[T]hey have a vested interest in blaming everything on Russia," he points out.

Here, however, is what Foust doesn't explain. It looks like the Georgians had been trying to keep the whole story quiet -- and work back channels in the U.S. to get the Russians to back off. The story was actually "outed" here in the U.S.

Yes, to a point. However, since Carafano is apparently aware of my analysis of reporting on the Georgian bombings (and not, let us assume, just filching links from another dishonest Weekly Standard freakout about it), then he might have thought to reference the additional reporting I highlighted that casts doubt on the CIA's assignment of blame to the GRU. Or that, contrary to his portrayal, Georgia has been pushing this bombing story since December. In fact, since we're going there, here is the letter the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been emailing reporters and embassies since June:

Article continues after the document

GEO IED fullc

So to claim the Georgian government wanted to keep this quiet is, once again, just dishonest. And the film meant to portray Russians as grizzled evil-doers and Georgians as helpless lambs is the worst sort of pedantic malarkey.

Then again, this is not much of a surprise. Much as the Right wants to complain that inexplicable Russian hostility is some artifact of President Obama's uniquely complacent Russia policy, the relationship actually began suffering strain under President Bush -- well before the 2008 war in Georgia. Despite that, the U.S. -- Russian relationship remains much as it always has: periods of guarded cooperated punctuated by periods of tension.

Now, I have my own problems with Obama's policy of "reset" with Russia. I think the president was too quick to dismiss President Bush's very real accomplishments in securing Russian cooperation on a number of issues, and too reliant on the last year of his term to define what the relationship had become.

That being said, this is sadly part of a pattern. Every single election cycle since the end of the Cold War, the Right has spun up this huge push to portray Democrats as being "soft" on Russia. In the 1990s, the rightwing meme was that President Clinton was too weak on fighting Boris Yeltsin's corruption. Despite strongly condemning Russia's mass killings during the second Chechen War, he was nevertheless accused of "waffling" by critics. In 2004, John Kerry was derided as being weak on terrorism after the Beslan School massacre. And finally, from 2008 onward, President Obama has been derided for his weakness on Russia, starting with the war in Georgia and continuing to the current push back against his "reset" policy.

There's no doubt the Left is much less confrontational toward Russia. There's very little doubt that sometimes a little confrontation is good for a relationship defined as much by frustration as it is by accommodation. But the Right's gleeful use of misleading rhetoric to gin up an adversary where one really doesn't exist is worse than embarrassing: it is actively counterproductive to ever having a normal relationship with Russia. It's time to stop.

A version of this post appeared at Registan.net.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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