Condi: I Did Not Blame Georgia!
There aren't many issues on The Bug Pit's radar that have much political resonance in Washington (or elsewhere), but the Russia-Georgia war is by far the most significant. As someone who had already been following the region for a while before the 2008 war, it was dispiriting to see how, over the few days that that war lasted, how polarizing the issue became. Before the war, there wasn't a conservative or liberal way to see Georgia -- pretty much everyone in the small cohort of people who paid attention to the Caucasus, no matter what their political views, understood that Russia was aggressive, Georgia was reckless, and that could end badly there. But over the short duration of the war, people who had never previously paid attention to the region tried quickly to figure out what was going on, and the easiest way to do that is to make it a partisan issue. So conservatives said Russia started the war, liberals said Georgia started it, and then a couple of weeks after the shooting stopped, everyone more or less stopped thinking about it, and their opinions calcified at that. So when you write about the Georgia war, you expect a little more attention -- people in Washington's ears perk up, and they read to see whether you confirm their bias about what happened, or if you're a warmongering neocon/feckless stooge of the Kremlin.
Anyway, that's a roundabout way of getting to the point that Condoleezza Rice has responded to a post of mine, calling it "outrageous"! Well, sort of. The post, originally titled "Rice: Saakashvili Let Russians Provoke Him Into Starting War," as part of the new content-sharing agreement between EurasiaNet and The Atlantic, was re-posted with a new, more attention-grabbing headline and subhed: "Condoleezza Rice Blames Georgian Leader for War With Russia: The former secretary of state contradicts the view, held by many U.S. Republicans, that Russia began the 2008 war." This aroused the ire of Commentary, and then the Weekly Standard, the reporter from which called Rice and got her response:
“It’s outrageous,” Condoleezza Rice says of the Atlantic story. “The idea that I would blame the Georgians couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Kucera’s entire article is based on quotations taken directly from Rice’s recently published memoir, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Nevertheless, he somehow is able to distort the meaning of the words in the book so that the former secretary of state no longer recognizes them as her own.
“The idea that I somehow blamed Saakashvilli for this . . . I just don’t think that is accurate,” Rice tells me in a phone interview. “It is true that we were worried that the Russians would provoke [Georgian president Mikheil] Saakashvili and that he would allow himself to be provoked. But in no way were the Georgians at fault, and I think that’s clear from the full text.”
The post said that Rice said that Saakashvili allowed himself to get provoked by Russia, and that it was Georgia which made the first large-scale offensive of the war, the shelling and invasion of Tskhinvali. While that stops short of "blaming" Georgia, it does contradict the narrative that Tbilisi still promotes, which is that Russia was the unilateral aggressor, and so is newsworthy as such. Nothing that Rice says to the Weekly Standard actually contradicts what my post said she said.
The Standard then offers this aside:
In the book, Rice subtly suggests that Russian hatred for Georgians might even be motivated by the Georgians having darker skin than the Russians. As Rice writes in her memoir:
The average man on the street will tell you without too much prompting that the dark-skinned inhabitants of the Caucasus are thieves and thugs. Once when staying in a somewhat seedy Moscow hotel, the Ukraina, I returned from dinner to be told by an agitated “hall lady” (in the old Soviet Union these senior citizens stayed up all night to “watch” the comings and goings of hotel guests) that some Georgian men had been asking after me. Her unvarnished anti-Georgian screed was delivered without her apparently noticing that I, too, was dark-skinned.
It is not clear why an article in the Atlantic would promote the view that Georgia was the aggressor, but it is nothing more than distortions aimed at furthering the Russian line.
Ergo: if you are critical of Georgia, you're probably a racist. Sigh.
Anyway, this is a bit more meta and personal than I like this blog to be, but when the former secretary of state calls you out, it's a special occasion. So, welcome to the readership of The Bug Pit, Dr. Rice! And I'll look forward to hearing more from you.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.