The glass shards littering the towns of Georgia are the pieces of a shattered illusion.
Surprisingly, there are still people in the world who think that the United States believes in fighting oppression, and that it will put itself on the line to defend democracy and the little guy.
At first, the quotes from angry Georgians are startling.
Pyotr Bezhov, a man fleeing the violence on Sunday, told a New York Times reporter, “The biggest problem here is you, your country. You said that the Soviets were an evil empire, but it’s you that are the empire.”
Retreating troops spoke not of the brutality of their Russian attackers – that was expected – but of their betrayal at the hands of the Americans.
“Over the past few years, I lived in a democratic society,” Major Georgi, a retreating Georgian soldier, told The New York Times. “I was happy. And now America and the European Union are spitting on us.”
“Where are our friends?” said another exhausted soldier.
Georgia was a country that loved the United States. The road from the airport was named George W. Bush Street. Pictures of Bush hung on the walls of homes. Desperate for allies in its terrorizing war, the United States trained the Georgian military and became its best friend. After Britain, Georgia sent the largest number of troops to support the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Maybe it was folly for the Georgians to believe the United States would put its muscle where its mouth was, but they did believe.
Since believing in fictions is part of what makes us human, one can hardly blame East Europeans, who suffered the yoke of Russian rule for so long, for being blinded by pro-United States sentiment.
Still, it is sometimes hard to believe that anyone takes seriously the myth that the United States fights for self-determination when it has invaded more countries and killed more civilians than any other nation in the past 50 years.
This week Bush said that the Russian offensive was “unacceptable in the 21st century.” Does Bush have a different calendar from the rest of us? In what century did his invasions occur?
What was the principle under which he finds it unacceptable? That it wasn’t bloody enough, or that the occupation is not yet total? That Putin has not yet hanged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for his alleged crimes?
It’s a good thing for Putin that Bush has already set the course of the 21st century. Bush’s aggression offers him a ready analogy: “Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages,” Putin said. “And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed ten Ossetian villages at once, who ran elderly people and children with tanks, who burned civilians alive in their sheds — these leaders must be taken under protection.”
None of Putin’s charges has yet been confirmed, although scattered reports of Georgian aggression in South Ossetia have started to trickle in. If true, we’ll want to know more about what prompted Saakashvili’s cockamamie attack. Russian leaders have also suggested Georgia got the green light from the United States, another insinuation yet to be confirmed.
It’s too early to draw conclusions, but it would be hard to believe Saakashvili got his swagger from anywhere other than his ex-best bud, Bush, who once thrilled thousands of Georgians by jigging to one of their folk songs. As good as Saakashvili’s English is, it’s not surprising he was unable to see through the fake Texas accent of the paper tiger.
When you believe fervently in a myth, you discard anything that contradicts it. You forget that the United States recently smashed the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and Iraq and now wants to do the same in Iran. You might remember that it attacked Iraq in 1991 ostensibly for the sake of Kuwait’s territorial integrity. But you forget that it exercises this rationale only with weak countries, never with strong. It allows Chinese abuses in Tibet, and will stand idly by while Russia invades Georgia and massacres people for years in Chechnya.
A bully does not stand up to other bullies. Russia knows it can do what it wants on its block while another bully stamps its foot at the other end of the street.
It finally makes sense that Georgian anger is the anger of a burst bubble. These people are starting to see that they believed in a myth.
“It was just interesting to me that here we are, trying to promote peace and harmony, and we’re witnessing a conflict take place,” said Bush Monday, while he was still playing grab-ass with the athletes in Beijing. The first sitting U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, Bush returned to the White House to deliver the following words with a straight face:
“The Russian government must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
The Georgians no longer believe. Does anyone?
Ah yes, many of us here at home still do. The Times on Sunday published an op-ed by William Kristol describing the “aggressive powers” of the world without even a self-reflexive twitch, not even a nod at the most aggressive power of them all. It’s like Parisians used to say about the ugly Eiffel Tower when it first went up—the only time you can’t see it is when you’re inside it.
BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org