For the best possible illustration of why Islamic terrorism may one day be considered the least of our problems, look no further than the BBC’s split-screen coverage of Friday’s Olympics opening ceremony. On one side, fireworks sparkled, and thousands of exotically dressed Chinese dancers bent their bodies into the shape of doves, the cosmos, and so on. On the other side, gray Russian tanks were shown rolling into South Ossetia, a rebel province of Georgia. The effect was striking: Two of the world’s rising powers were strutting their stuff.
The difference, of course, is that one event has been in rehearsal for years while the other, if not a total surprise, was not actually scheduled to take place this week. And that, too, is significant. The Chinese challenge to Western power has been a long time coming, and it is, in a certain sense, predictable. As a rule, the Chinese do not make sudden moves, and they do not try to provoke crises.
Russia, by contrast, is an unpredictable power, which makes a response more difficult. In fact, Russian politics have now become so utterly opaque that it is not easy to say why this particular “frozen” conflict has escalated right now. Russian sources said that Georgia had launched an invasion of South Ossetia, aiming to pacify the breakaway region. Georgia, meanwhile, said that its troops entered the South Ossetian “capital” in response to escalating South Ossetian attacks, which have been going on for a week—years, really—as well as the Russian aerial bombardment of Georgian territory.
But there are other players involved—paramilitaries, provocateurs, even peacekeepers, some of whom (Russians) have apparently been killed—and a complicated chain of events with myriad possible interpretations. Previous tensions—both in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the other piece of Georgia that has declared sovereignty—had somehow been resolved without an actual war. Someone, clearly, wanted this one to go further.
Both sides have deeper motives for fighting. The Russians have an interest in preventing Georgia from joining NATO, as Georgia, a Western-oriented democracy—George Bush called the country a “beacon of liberty“—has long wanted to do. In this, the Russians will almost certainly succeed. There is no Western power that has any interest in a military ally that is involved in a major military conflict with Russia.
The Georgian leadership, by contrast, had come to believe that the constant pressure of Russian aggression, coupled with the West’s failure to accept Georgia into NATO, compelled them to demonstrate “self-reliance.” Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has been buying weapons in preparation for this moment. Those who know him say he believed a military conflict was inevitable but could be won if conducted cleverly. As of Friday night, with Russian soldiers fighting in South Ossetia—only a few dozen miles from Tblisi, the Georgian capital—it seems as if he might have miscalculated, badly. Russia has not sent 150 tanks across that border in order to lose.
Still, the bottom line is this: Georgia should have stepped back from the brink—and should still do so if it has a chance—but Russia’s deployment of such a large and carefully prepared force, not only in South Ossetia but in the rest of Georgia, is totally unacceptable. And the other indisputable conclusion? Wherever the blame for this week’s escalation is finally laid, the West has very little influence on the outcome. Saakashvili’s appeals for help and moral support—”This is not about Georgia,” he told CNN, “it is about America, its values”—aren’t going to come to much unless Russia wants them to.
Everyone is trying very hard, it is true: Even as I am writing this, a dozen or more diplomats and heads of state are crowding the telephone lines between Beijing and the Caucasus, * trying to get both sides to stop fighting, right now, and to worry later about who started it. Perhaps they’ll succeed—or perhaps those who wanted this battle to start also want it to continue.
In any case, the time to deal with this conflict was two years ago or four years ago. That there was a security vacuum in the Caucasus; that this vacuum was dangerous; that war was likely; that Georgia, an eager ally of the United States, would not come out of it well; that a successful invasion of Georgia, a country with U.S. troops on its soil, would reflect badly on the West—all of that has been obvious for a long time. Cowardice, weakness, lack of ideas, and above all the distraction of other events prevented any deeper engagement. And now it may be too late.
Correction, Aug. 13, 2008: The article originally misspelled Caucasus. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)