General Wheeler’s War

On the morning of June 24, 1898, American forces advanced toward Las Guasimas, Cuba under the command of Brigadier General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler. The aged general was a cavalry commander who’d fought for the Confederates in the Civil War. Heavy fire from Spanish troops halted the advance and battle ensued. Gen. Wheeler called for reinforcements and the Spanish began to pull back. Overexcited in the literal and figurative heat of the moment, Gen. Wheeler turned to his troops and yelled, “We’ve got the damned Yankees on the run!”

I’m sure John McCain knows how Gen. Wheeler felt. After weeks of publicly confusing Shia and Sunni, of erroneously stating that Iraq shares a border with Afghanistan and not remembering when the surge he takes credit for began; the Russian invasion of Georgia must feel like cool rain on a hot summer’s day.

It’s so much easier to fight the war of 40 years ago than today’s. We’ve already decided who the good and bad guys are and the history books tell us how it comes out. No need to worry about faceless terrorists or dance carefully around the Constitutionally guaranteed religious rights of Muslims. “We’ve got the damned Russkies on the run!”

Actually, we don’t. Truth is, the situation in Georgia (that’s Georgia on the Black Sea, not the one where Gen. Wheeler was born) is as complicated as Iraq or Afghanistan. In the real Cold War days, Georgia was forcibly integrated into the Soviet Union. The Georgians resented this and when the USSR dissolved, the Georgians pulled out, as did many other republics. Two regions of Georgia – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – are not happy being Georgian. Russia, robust once again, thanks to its oil and natural gas reserves is a) angry that the US and NATO helped Kosovo detach itself from Russia’s ally Serbia in the late ‘90s when Russia was weak and b) none too pleased about having an upstart republic on its southern border, especially one that has allied itself with the US and wants to join NATO.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and de facto autocrat has been playing a clever game of chess with the west with South Ossetia and Abkhazia as his pawns and Georgia as the opposing queen. Because the US and NATO supported Kosovo, he supports the breakaway Georgian regions. Because Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili wants to join NATO, Mr. Putin arranges a situation that makes NATO look weak.

George Bush, for his part, took a minute away from watching the Olympics to warn the Russians not to go too far in their Georgian military campaign, after which the Russians immediately went too far. They know the US cannot and will not come to Georgia’s aid. There’s been a great deal of back and forth in the press about what the US should do about Georgia, but it’s not a “should” question. It’s a “can” question and the answer is, “No, we can’t.”

We can’t because politically we encouraged Kosovo’s separatism and because we are conducting our own unjustified war of choice in Iraq. The big “can’t” – the real “can’t” – is our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched our military too far already; there’s no way we can take on Russia in the Caucuses.

Then there’s the oil issue. As I noted above, Russia is an oil giant these days. There have been plans to run an oil pipeline through Georgia, which Russia sees as the west hedging in on its turf. A few years ago when Ukraine, another former Soviet Republic, got all up in Vlad Putin’s face, he turned off the natural gas in the middle of winter – which also turned off the natural gas for much of Europe. All those European members of NATO remember that, which is why no one in Europe is rushing to send paratroops to Georgia.

This is not the Cold War. This is what happens when nations fail to learn the lessons of the Cold War. Back in the Cold War days, we engaged in the worst kind of identity politics: everything the US did was good, everything the Soviets did was bad – even when we did the same kind of things.

That kind of thinking ignored the complexities of reality then and it’s no more helpful now. We need to remember what kept the Cold War from heating up at the crucial moments was the willingness to speak to one’s opponents, to recognize their real interests and to stand up for one’s own.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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