"Have you noticed," my wife asked, "that when one of America's allies thinks it has a green light to invade somewhere, they always do it in the summer?"
She was right: Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, 1990; Israel invaded Lebanon in July, 2006; Georgia invaded South Ossetia in August, 2008. Israel really did have a green light from Washington (not that it helped much), but Saddam Hussein was catastrophically wrong, and Mikhail Saakashvili was, too.
The difference is that the U.S. government continues to support Saakashvili even after his smash-and-grab assault on South Ossetia went so badly wrong. The Bush Administration is just trying to save face--sending in "humanitarian aid" in US military aircraft and ships after the shooting stops, for example--and Washington never really backed Georgia's aggression. But if the Russians don't understand that, we're heading for a new Cold War.
That would be a very stupid way to spend the early 21st century, but the comically belligerent Vice-President Dick Cheney is not the only one declaring that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered." The US and British media (but not those in most other Western countries) are talking as if Communists still ruled in Moscow and Russia had committed a wanton act of aggression.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain declares "We are all Georgians now" and suggests expelling the Russians from the G8. Even relatively balanced people like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are using Cold War analogies: "This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbour, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it." She's right about one thing--it's not 1968--but the rest is nonsense.
Russia didn't threaten Georgia; it responded to a surprise Georgian attack on South Ossetia, a territory where there were Russian peace-keeping troops by international agreement. It has not occupied Georgia's capital, nor has it overthrown the government (though the Georgians may do that themselves when they realise what a fool Saakashvili has been).
It is true that Moscow was unhappy about Georgia's close ties with the United States, which included American sponsorship of Georgia for NATO membership. It is also true that, presented with the opportunity by Saakashvili's attack, Russia has taken advantage of it to smash his shiny new American-trained army (which fled in panic from Gori on Monday).
It may even be true that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government deliberately suckered Saakashvili into his attack by provoking him in various ways, but that is far from certain. Even if that did happen, it was still Georgia that launched an all-out assault on the enclave of South Ossetia on the night of August 7, and Georgian peacekeeping troops who turned their weapons on their Russian colleagues.
If the Russians had not reacted as they did, Georgia would now control the whole territory, and the surviving South Ossetians would mostly be refugees in (Russian) North Ossetia. That does not give vengeful South Ossetians the right to drive the Georgian minority in the enclave out of their villages, as some reports suggest may now be happening, and it is the Russians' duty to stop it. But this is not Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The current mess arose almost 20 years ago when South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which had been rolled into Georgia but given self-governing status by Stalin, began talking about complete independence as the Soviet Union stumbled towards collapse in 1990. The first post-Communist Georgian leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, replied by suppressing their autonomy entirely.
When the South Ossetians and Abkhaz revolted against this, Georgian troops were sent in to crush them but proved unable to do so. Several thousand people were killed, far larger numbers became refugees, and the quarrels ended up as two of the "frozen conflicts" around the fringes of the former Soviet Union, patrolled by Russian and Georgian peace-keeping troops.
Nothing much changed until the "Rose Revolution" that brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power five years ago promising to reintegrate the lost districts into Georgia. The Bush administration saw an opportunity to create a military foothold on Russia's southern border, and began supplying Saakashvili with military equipment and training for his forces. Which brings us, fairly directly, to today.
Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia because he thought his American ties would frighten the Russians into silence, but in reality the United States was never going to fight a war against Russia over Georgia. So now we have the charade of the "humanitarian aid," and the brazen cheek of the U.S. special envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza, telling the BBC that the violence in the Caucasus strengthens Georgia's case to join the NATO alliance.
"Russia, a country with 30 times the population [of Georgia] decided to roll into its much smaller neighbour and tried to roll over it," Bryza said. "It failed to roll over Georgia, but it would never have even thought of doing this if Georgia were already a member of Nato."
Happily, this grotesque misrepresentation of the truth will carry little weight with the larger Western European members of NATO, so that isn't going to happen.
The Russian troops will probably all be gone from Georgia within a week, and Saakashvili will also probably be gone within a year. There will be a certain chill in the air for a while, but the Cold War is not coming back. At least, not over this incident.