We’re Still Not Georgians

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"We’re Still Not Georgians"

Jon Chait defends John McCain’s irresponsible “we are all Georgians” line:

The point is that we can’t physically defend Georgia from Russian agression, but we can make a symbolic stand of unity with a democratic, pro-Western state that has been attacked by an autocratic aggressor. Is Yglesias trying to argue that, since we don’t have the capacity to intervene militarily, we can’t make basic moral judgments?

Of course I’m not arguing that. I wrote on Monday that “whatever my serious disagreements with the Russia hawks’ take on the overall context in which we should understand the Russia-Georgia conflict, Russia has now escalated beyond the point where there’s justification for what they’re doing.” That’s an expression of a moral judgment. “We are all Georgians” is, however, a much stronger statement. Contra Chait, the United States clearly could threaten to use military force against Russia in order to try to force them to withdraw from Georgia. Presumably if Georgia had the kind of military assets at its disposal that the United States has, that’s exactly what Georgia would be doing. But we’re not, in fact, going to do any such thing — because neither I nor Chait nor McCain think that would be smart. Because we are not, in fact, Georgians — not today, not yesterday, and not tomorrow.

Beyond linguistic parsing, I think there’s a real policy issue here. The McCain campaign put something out yesterday about crowds cheering in Tblisi when President Shakashvili quoted McCain’s statement. I can’t read their minds, but it seems very plausible to me that they were cheering because they read this as a call for the United States to take practical steps to help Georgia not as a piece of hollow political sloganeering. And that kind of thing — Georgiaphilic statements by American elites that lead Georgians to dramatically overstate the level of practical support they could expect from the United States in a confrontation with Russia — was one of the contributing factors to the current crisis. Moral judgments are an excellent thing, but it’s cruel for leading politicians in a superpower to go around giving the citizens small countries implicit assurances of support that they have no intention of following up on.

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