The Guns of August: Please, not again!
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration,” so reads the opening line of Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book: The Guns of August.
Speaking of openings, many watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on TV. Actually present were Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, along with President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, former President George H.W. Bush and Dr. Henry Kissinger.
As the Bush party was gasping in admiration, Vladimir Putin was approving orders for Russian tanks to roll through the Roki Tunnel under the Caucasus Mountains and on into Georgia’s South Ossetia province and for Russian fighter-bombers to strike deep into the independent, nation-state of Georgia.
Back home, other people were watching former Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards making the lame excuse that he only cheats on his wife when her cancer is in remission and/or were watching the confusing events that took future NFL Hall of Famer, Brett Farve, from the Green Bay Packers to the New York Jets.
But when guns are firing in any August one cannot help but think of the fateful events of August, 1914, when the leaders of Europe made a series of diplomatic and military blunders that led to the death or wounding of over 40 million people. In retrospect, just to avenge the assassination of a relatively minor Austrian nobleman and his wife in Sarajevo seems hardly worth it.
This suggests that we might want to look gingerly at Georgia, which became an independent nation-state in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, for the pro-U.S, pro-NATO, pro-European Union Georgia (which is led by the U.S.-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili), Georgia has two regions that do not want to be part of a greater Georgia: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Abkhazia is important for its many miles of Black Sea coast. The shape of South Ossetia points like a dagger down into the heart of Georgia.
At this point, it is pointless to try to determine who threw the first stone in what became all-out firefight featuring former Soviet tanks and Su-27 fighter-bombers against the U.S.-trained 18,000-person Georgian armed forces. But there is a point to looking at what is a stake in Georgia.
Putin’s Russia cannot afford to have more of the former Soviet satellite countries attracted into NATO and/or the European Union. For almost eight years, U.S. foreign and military policy has successfully ringed present-day Russia with former Soviet satellites now allied with the West. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania are negotiating with the U.S. for roles in the anti-missile defense system aimed at Iran. Ergo: Putin was looking for an excuse to invade Georgia and turn South Ossetia and Abkhazia into bargaining chips against the pro-western Georgia.
Of course, all this is also about oil and gas. If the U.S. had acted on the energy lessons we should have learned during the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74, what is happening in Georgia (other than the humanitarian costs) would be of no concern.
But Georgia’s geographic location makes it the land-bridge, pipeline country for Russian oil and gas coming westward from the Caspian Sea and for oil and gas coming down out of Russia to Turkey and to the West. Russia is getting rich off of the current oil crisis and does not want its outward oil and gas flow impeded by Georgia. If Putin is to increase his oil and gas hegemony over Western Europe, Putin must bring the pro-U.S. Georgia to heel.
Due to its location, Georgia may be a “land-bridge too far” in terms of physical help from U.S. forces. But then, in an August long, long ago, some really weird things started to happen.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is a distinguished graduate of the U.S Naval War College in Newport, RI.
©2008. William Hamilton.