Czechs confronting Soviet troops in Prague, Aug. 26, 1968. Soviet forces had invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the reform movement known as the Prague Spring.
When Soviet troops marched into Hungary and Poland in 1956, I remember watching the agony unfold on black and white television, a young infomaniac in the making. One night, I watched with my father's uncle Jack, an old Hungarian Jew who had no love for the Eastern Europe he had left behind nearly 50 years before. "I hate to see the Russians invade," he smiled. "But if they have to invade anywhere, they picked the right countries."
When Soviet troops marched into Czechoslovakia in 1968, I had just returned from a week in Prague writing a story about the Czech reformers. I remember speaking at a campus rally in Berkeley, where I compared the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia to America's war in Vietnam. How could anyone in good conscience condemn one and not the other?
When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve of 1979, I remember jetting off to Pakistan and from there to Kabul, where the BBC sent me to organize filming for a prime-time Panorama documentary. I was the lowly advance man on the team, working under one of our most senior producers, who knew from the start the story the film should tell. Just as in the days of Czarist Russia, he insisted that the Soviets were looking for a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean from which to challenge "the West." Years later, former CIA Director Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski revealed the Carter administration had begun funding the anti-Soviet mujahedeen six months before the Soviets invaded. Even more sobering, Brzezinski had warned Carter at the time, "this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention."
Now, in response to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sending troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, the Russians have sent bombers, ships, tanks and troops against Georgia. The Europeans then tried to make a clumsy cease-fire work, while the Bush administration throws fuel on the fire by sending in American troops on a "vigorous and ongoing" humanitarian mission "to show to Russia that we can come to the aid of a European ally, and that we can do it at will, whenever and wherever we want."
It's dÃ©jÃ vu all over again, and none have taken greater comfort in the still-escalating crisis than John McCain, his foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann (whose firm lobbied for the Georgians) and the same neoconservatives who pushed Americans to flex our great power muscles in Iraq in even more disgusting ways than Vladimir Putin has done in Georgia. Robert Kagan set the tone in The Washington Post, charging that Putin had "reestablished a virtual czarist rule in Russia and is trying to restore the country to its once-dominant role in Eurasia and the world."
Wholeheartedly siding with "my friend Misha Saakashvili," McCain then announced on behalf of every American, "We are all Georgians now" and called for NATO to step in to "stabilize this dangerous situation." He also repeated his long-standing demand to bring Georgia into NATO, a position that the less bellicose Obama is also taking. NATO membership would commit the United States and its allies to defend the Georgians against Russia with military force. This is a life-and-death commitment few Americans would want to make if anyone took the time to explain it to them.
More sensibly, the French, Germans, and other Europeans have never been eager to go along with American efforts to extend NATO membership into the unruly Caucasus, remembering all too well how the First World War began in the similarly chaotic Balkans. The Europeans will hardly change their minds now, having just seen how reckless Saakashvili and his American supporters can be.
McCain talks grandly of "a moral commitment" to defend "Georgian democracy." It's heady stuff, echoing back to November 2003, when Washington helped stage Georgia's Rose Revolution. The National Endowment for Democracy, which took over much of American covert funding from the CIA in 1983, supplied a good part of the cash and used many of the same nonviolent activists, youth groups and "civil society" fronts it would subsequently employ in Ukraine. Sadly, Misha Saakashvili turned out to be just about as democratic as Putin, manipulating elections, using force against his opponents and greatly restricting press freedom during a state of emergency in November 2007. Under his leadership, Georgia remains famously corrupt, and he has proved every bit as warm and compassionate toward the breakaway Ossetians and Abkhasians as Putin has been toward the Georgians.
As for Washington, it continues to pursue more material interests (especially the multi-billion dollar oil and natural gas pipelines that use Georgia to bypass both Russia and nearby Iran), while American hotheads like John McCain continue to give Saakashvili the impression we will back him even as he baits the Russian bear. The Pentagon supplies and trains the Georgian military, which sent 2,000 troops to fight in Iraq until Washington flew them home after the recent hostilities began. And, now, the Georgians are begging Washington to include them in the new anti-missile system the Bush administration is building in Poland and Czech Republic, a supposedly defensive system that could give the Pentagon a first-strike nuclear capability against Russia.
Needless to say, the Russians see all this much as Americans would view Cuban revolutionary agitators, a Russian anti-missile system and Chinese military trainers in Mexico and Canada. But, hey, who cares? We're the only remaining superpower and we don't have to worry about how the Russians feel until it's much too late.