(Inter Press Service)
Just days after the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia, the debate in Washington over how to view the crisis historically has become nearly as contentious as the debate over how to respond politically.
Prominent neoconservatives and other foreign policy hawks have portrayed Russia’s offensive into Georgia as an echo of 1930s Nazi expansionism—an interpretation that has been hotly contested by a number of liberals and conservative realists.
But the question of what sort of concrete action the United States should take in the Caucasus has proved far messier, as both camps remain split about the proper response to the Russian offensive.
Since August 8, when Russia sent troops into the restive Georgian region of South Ossetia, neoconservatives in the United States have analogized Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, and the Russian incursion to Germany’s 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland.
"The details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important," began a Monday column in the Washington Post by prominent neoconservative Robert Kagan, a cofounder of the Project for a New American Century. "Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia?"
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s famously unsuccessful attempt to appease Hitler by ceding the Sudetenland in the 1938 Munich Agreement has become a central reference of neoconservative foreign policy doctrine. "Appeasement," "Munich," and Chamberlain’s name itself are often taken as code words signifying the ineffectiveness of compromise and diplomacy—and the necessity of military force—in dealing with U.S. enemies.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also seemed to be alluding to the lessons of Munich in an August 12 speech. McCain claimed that the United States had "learned at great cost the price of allowing aggression against free nations to go unchecked."
McCain is advised by Kagan and has joined him in proposing a “League of Democracies” to counter powers such as Russia and China.
At a panel held August 13 at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, the Munich analogies were plentiful.
Frederick Kagan, brother of Robert and a military scholar who helped formulate the Bush administration’s "surge" plan in Iraq, complained that Western governments and media viewed Georgia as "a far off place of which we know little." Kagan’s comment was a reference to Chamberlain’s description of the Sudeten crisis as "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing."
Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and prominent foreign policy hawk, mocked the Tuesday peace agreement between Russia and Georgia brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"President Sarkozy has landed in Paris holding in his hand a piece of paper guaranteeing peace in our time," Peters said to widespread laughter from the audience. Once again, the reference was to a statement of Chamberlain’s following the Munich conference.
Peters ended his remarks by making the Putin-Hitler analogy all but explicit.
"We are faced with a resurgent major power with imperialist megalomaniacal ambitions, led by the most effective leader in the world today," Peters said. "Ladies and gentlemen, I find this terribly reminiscent of the 1930s."
Hitler and Chamberlain analogies have long been staples of neoconservative rhetoric, but their application to the situation in Georgia has been met with a growing backlash.
Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, advocated U.S. assistance to the Georgian regime in the National Interest, a journal that is known as a bastion of foreign policy realism. But Simes urged policy makers to "disregard the hysterical diatribes of [Georgian President Mikhail] Saakashvili’s American champions, who protest too much—perhaps because their irresponsible encouragement of the Georgian president was a contributing factor on the road to the war."
Despite the intensity of the debate surrounding the Nazi analogy, there has been little agreement on either side about what would constitute an appropriate response to Russian aggression.
At the AEI panel, Peters was blistering in his criticism of the U.S. response to the war but stopped short of calling for direct military action. He recommended measures such as expelling Russia from the Group of Eight and World Trade Organization and revoking Russia’s right to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
Many—both inside and outside the neoconservative camp—have argued for Georgia to be granted immediate membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a bulwark against Russian power.
But NATO membership has its skeptics, including among those typically identified with neoconservative foreign policy. Writing in National Review, classicist and military scholar Victor Davis Hanson claimed that "NATO was given a gift in not having made Georgia a member," since the organization would have been unable to respond, "effectively destroy[ing] the Potemkin alliance."
Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar and McCain advisor, has been one of the few advocates of direct U.S. military assistance to Georgia. In an August 12 Los Angeles Times column, Boot conceded that the "Nazi analogy may appear overwrought" but saw echoes in Putin’s statements of "the excuses that Hitler used to swallow Czechoslovakia and Poland."
Boot pushed for the United States to send Stinger and Javelin missiles to the Georgian military for use against Russian tanks and planes.
For now, the debate may have been put on hold by President George W. Bush’s August 13 announcement that the United States will send humanitarian assistance to Georgia and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to Paris and Tbilisi to help resolve the conflict.
The Bush administration has received a great deal of criticism from hawks for its perceived inaction up to this point. At the AEI panel, Peters went so far as to venture a different historical analogy.
"Bush," he said, "looks strikingly like Jimmy Carter when the Russians invaded Afghanistan."
Daniel Luban writes for the Inter Press Service.