Monday, August 25, 2008

Blame Bush or Clinton for Russia's Invasion?

Among the charges leveled against the West these days by Moscow's defenders is hypocrisy. Viewed from the U.S., the obvious parallel is Iraq: If we get to invade Iraq without prior international approval, why can't Russia invade a much closer neighbor?

But the better analogy---and the one that has apparently stirred up the Russians to a greater extent---is Kosovo. Recall that the NATO operation in Kosovo was not authorized by the UN Security Council, and thus, from the perspective of international law, illegal. Indeed, it was also probably illegal from the perspective of domestic U.S. law, as President Clinton sought and failed to obtain Congressional approval for the action, but then went ahead with it anyway.

At the time, the internationalist left in the U.S. was divided. (But pretty much only in the U.S. I happened to be in Italy at the time, where the left was almost unanimously opposed to the action, not principally on Serb-friendly grounds but on general anti-war and anti-U.S. grounds.) Many of the people who had been distraught by world indifference to the Rwandan genocide and the slow reaction to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia were glad that the West was finally taking a stand against many of the very perpetrators of the latter. But others worried deeply about what precedent would be set by a humanitarian intervention without formal legal authorization. After all, military expansionists (including Hitler himself) have used the pretext of humanitarianism to wage aggressive war.

Did Russia infer from NATO's actions in Kosovo that there was now a new norm permitting military action to aid a breakaway region? Maybe, although given the conflict in Chechnya, it's hard to see how Putin could have made that a universal principle.

Still, it's probably wrong to see in Russia's actions in Georgia simple self-serving power politics. Justifications do matter, and Russians may well be right to see a double standard here. Why does NATO get to say that Kosovo needs its help while Russia cannot say the same about South Ossetia?

I'm still tempted to say that the key event was not so much the 1999 NATO action in Kosovo but the decision of the US and various NATO allies earlier this year to recognize Kosovo's claim to independence. While atrocities are occurring, there is a good moral argument for military intervention on humanitarian grounds, even if such intervention is illegal because not authorized by the Security Council. But changing international boundaries should require a more orderly process. Viewed from Russia, Western acknowledgment of Kosovar independence confirmed the suspicion that the 1999 action (including the bombing of Belgrade, let's not forget) reflected anti-Slavic aggression all along---and such acknowledgment occurred on the watch of the current President Bush.

Posted by Mike Dorf

9 comments:

Roycommi said...

NATO gets do do what it wants imho because NATO is a collection of democracies that were trying to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, and bring stability.

Russia on the other hand is an authoritarian near dictatorship that fed money, arms, and pro independence propaganda into the breakaway regions for over a decade and used the legitimate suppression of rebellion within the boarders of a sovereign nation (a democracy i might ad) as pretext for a power and land grab. If Russia had invaded any of the number of neighboring "-stans" that are run by similar authoritarian dictators, i don't think anyone would have given a mind.

I don't think its too hard to see a clear distinction in these events.

Michael C. Dorf said...

in response to roycommi, i completely agree that it's easy for US to see a clear distinction here, just as it was easy for proponents of the war in Iraq to see a distinction between preemptive war against a bad regime like Saddam Hussein's and pre-emptive war between regional rivals (like India and Pakistan). The main point is that once you start violating international law because you're a good guy stopping bad guys, you undermine the ability of that law to constrain anybody. To be sure, there are some circumstances in which it makes sense to go ahead and do the right thing even though it's illegal, but there's almost always a price to be paid for that judgment. It's easy to see how Bush et al were willing to pay this price because their crowd (e.g., Bolton) don't believe in international law in the first place. My premise was that international law has some beneficial effect.

Bob Moss said...

In general, I'm with Prof. Dorf on this one. There's been too much jumping to portray the conflict as completely black and white. Many aspects of it contain shades of gray. The fact that there is a credible secessionist movement in South Ossetia warns us to look for complexities. Besides, Teddy Roosevelt said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." What good is blustering about Russia's action if we can't do anything about it?

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