McCain and Georgia

The news of an agreed cease-fire between Russia and Georgia is certainly welcome, and we can only hope for an end to the violence and loss of life of the past week.

I’m no expert on the region or its recent tangled history, and I haven’t been following the news from there obsessively. But my understanding is that Georgia acted in a reckless and provocative manner to assert its authority in South Ossetia, and Russia reacted with overwhelming and brutal force, in a way that made little or no distinction between military and civilian targets. In fact, President Dmitri A. Medvedev frankly and chillingly admitted that one of Russia’s military objectives was simply to punish Georgia.

It is, of course, possible to be appalled at Russia’s aggressive actions in the conflict without turning Georgia and its government into blameless democratic heroes. Unfortunately US presidential candidate John McCain hasn’t managed to do that:

Now much of what McCain says is unquestionably true. But consider the events of last November, when the “tiny little democracy” was behaving in a far-from-democratic manner, violently dispersing non-violent protesters and shutting down opposition TV stations. Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili has often behaved in ways that betrayed the promise of his “Rose Revolution.”

In fact Freedom House recently downgraded Georgia’s rankings in terms of political rights and civil liberties, and now rates the country as only “partly free.”

And when it came to inflicting civilian casualties and damage to civilian buildings in the recent fighting, Georgian forces– intentionally or otherwise– were hardly blameless, Amnesty International reports:

[I]n Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, dozens of civilian buildings are said to have been destroyed as a result of attacks by Georgian forces, including residential homes, administrative buildings, a toy shop, university and the republican hospital.

Of course American and western support for Georgia’s sovereignty should not be contingent on the current status of its democracy. And I think the usually-sensible Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo is way off-base in accusing McCain of “jonesing” for war with Russia. But neither John McCain nor anyone else should let Georgia (or any other country) off the hook in terms of civil liberties or political rights just because it has been victimized by a far larger, and even less democratic, power.

I hope that McCain’s views on Georgia have not been influenced by the fact that his top foreign policy adviser, Randall Scheunemann, was until recently a lobbyist for the Georgian government.