The Duck of Minerva

Totten and Georgia

27 August 2008

A lot of people are buzzing about Michael Totten’s report on Georgia, in which he claims to have discovered the real truth about the outbreak of the war: Tblisi launched a preemptive attack in the face of a sudden escalation by the South Ossetians that presaged a Russian attack.

The report contains very interesting claims. But Totten’s narrative comprises, in essence, a transcription of a presentation given to him by a public-relations adviser for the Georgian government (Patrick Worms) and should be treated as such.

Totten brought along a regional expert named Thomas Goltz to see if anything seemed totally out of whack with Worms’ narrative.

But Goltz’s contribution mainly focused on background details, as he himself had no way of confirming or refuting Worms’ account.

Some describe Goltz as anti-Russian, and aspects of his own discussion certainly bear out that description. But it doesn’t really matter; Goltz’s expertise has no relevance to the credibility of Worms’ most important claims about “who started it.” Goltz’s presence doesn’t change a basic fact: Totten report amounts to a stenographic service for Georgian propaganda.

At the same time, however, none of this should obscure the increasing evidence of ethnic cleansing by South Ossetians and Abkhazians–aided and abetted by the Russians–and the diminishing evidence of widespread atrocities committed by the Georgians.

In other words, we need to distinguish between two different kinds of questions: jus ad bellum ones–such as “who started it” and “were they justified in doing so”–and jus in bello ones–concerning the morality of the way that the various parties conducted the war.

I think I’ve made this point a number of times over the last few weeks, but it bears repeating: just because some of us are very critical of Tblisi, of US policy towards Georgia, and of what we believe is hyperbolic sabre-rattling by opinion leaders in the United States, does not mean we believe the Russians are “good actors” or that we don’t think the United States and NATO need to make major adjustments in their policies towards Russia. In my view, the most important thing is for observers to avoid falling into a simplistic narrative that treats Tblisi as a lily-white victim and Russia as the Fourth Reich.

A final thought: It is entirely possible that Tblisi believed they were launching either a preemptive or preventive attack. This would make sense of a lot of things about the assault on Tskhinvali.