Monday, August 11, 2008

Reading the New York Times coverage of the war in the Caucasus between Russia and Georgia, you can learn all sorts of interesting things. One review piece, for instance, features an unnamed "American diplomat" saying, of Russia's mass grants of citizenship to residents of the disputed regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia:

The West had been skeptical of the validity of Russia’s handing out passports by the thousands to citizens of another nation.

“Having a document does not make you a Russian citizen,” one American diplomat said in 2004, as Russia expanded the program.

If the document is a proof of citizenship issued by the Russian government, most people would say that's the end of it. But this "American diplomat" says that the Russians can only naturalize people if we approve. Who knew?

But there's one thing that you probably won't learn from the Times: who started the shooting. The facts don't seem to be much in dispute. On August 8, the Georgians announced that most of South Ossetia had been "liberated" in an overnight offensive. ("Liberated", that is, from an internationally unrecognized separatist government that had been running the territory for years, as in Iraqi Kurdistan during the '90s, or more recently in Kosovo. [Late edit:] it's also worth noting, from amid the fog of war, multiple reports from the respectable British press of refugees claiming that the "liberation" had more or less leveled the largest town in the area.) This wasn't the first armed action in the region --- Georgian shells had killed Ossetian civilians as early as July 4 --- but it was the first territorial incursion. The present Russian action, disproportionate and brutal as it is (including attacks on Georgian cities outside the disputed regions), is nevertheless a response. And if the point of it is to seek regime change in a state (Georgia) that's pursuing reckless armed action on Russia's borders, well... our recent actions in Iraq, and Israel's in Lebanon, have given them precedent for that, too.

So, what does our American paper of record have to say about this? I'll admit to not reading every word, but I've looked at a couple of review pieces, meant to give readers an overview and perspective on the conflict. This one, by Helene Cooper, says

[T]he decision by the United States and Europe to recognize Kosovo may well have paved the way for Russia’s lightning-fast decision to send troops to back the separatists in South Ossetia.
without mentioning any more recent events that might, just possibly, have had an influence.

The same piece notes that "Georgia was pulling its troops out of the capitol of the breakaway region" without mentioning that they'd been there for only a day, or that their incursion was what triggered the Russians' "lightning-fast" response.

The other one is even more comical, and not just for the musing on the nature of citizenship that started this post. This analysis, to its credit, lists quite a few U.S. actions that have tempted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (first elected to Parliament there in 1995 after starting the year as a lawyer in New York) to try to "get tough" with the Russians. But the litany goes in chronological order, and what's at the end?

One American official who covers Georgian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity while the United States formulates its next public response, said that everything had gone wrong.

Mr. Saakashvili had acted rashly, he said, and had given Russia the grounds to invade. The invasion, he said, was chilling, disproportionate and brutal, and it was grounds for a strong censure. But the immediate question was how far Russia would go in putting Georgia back into what it sees as Georgia’s place.

Conspicuously missing: A clear statement of what Saakashvili's "rash action" actually was --- that he'd sent his army into a region with a de facto independent government, where most of the residents had Russian passports and wanted nothing to do with his government.

That's how far the American "paper of record" will bend over backwards to avoid saying that our would-be ally fired the first shots in the war that he's now losing. It's not a new low for the paper. It's not even as low as when it, for example, became an uncritical broadsheet broadcaster of duplicitous Pentagon pro-war propaganda in the run-up to the Iraq war. But it reminds you once again what modern American "objective" journalism is --- they're objectively repeating what Acceptable Sources (as determined by quotability at Georgetown cocktail parties) want you to believe, while leaving anyone else's view (including their own) completely out of it.

None of this, of course, is meant as a defense of the Russian counter-invasion, which has (once again) included strikes on cities well outside the disputed regions, with civilian casualties. This appears to be one of those miserable conflicts where no one is acting like the good guys --- which is to say, it's like almost all of them. But if you're getting your news from even "respectable" American media, you'd think otherwise. The difference in tone between American coverage of this story and, say, the BBC is remarkable.