Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is an American-educated Bush Administration protégé. He has served as a compelling mouthpiece for his country in press coverage of the current conflict. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post gives his analysis of the Russia/Georgia clash.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The crisis in Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia continues, with Russia apparently withdrawing some troops on Friday, but leaving others in place, despite a peace plan brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Tens of thousands of refugees are in need of humanitarian aid. So far the U.S. has flown two dozen planeloads of aid into Georgia but is barred from South Ossetia by Russian troops, now reportedly setting up checkpoints.
It's been two weeks of misery that began with clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian separatists, escalating when Georgia launched aerial and ground attacks and culminating in a Russian invasion. There's plenty of blame to go around but initially, at least, the Western media let Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili define the narrative. Here's CBS' Katie Couric, CNN's Larry King and CNN Headline's Glenn Beck. [CLIP]: KATIE COURIC: Mr. President, there are conflicting reports. Can you tell us what's going on? PRESIDENT SAAKASHVILI: Russian tanks ran through our towns, destroyed buildings, killed people, did ethnic cleansing of civilians. LARRY KING: Thank you very much for joining us, Mr. President. What's your overall reaction? PRESIDENT SAAKASHVILI: You know, I'm not shocked to hear it from former KGB operatives like Vladimir Putin. Those people come from the Orwellian world. GLENN BECK: I'm proud now to be joined by the courageous President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili. Mr. President, the last time we spoke — you know, I am a fan of yours, it was a happier time. What is the status of your country today? PRESIDENT SAAKASHVILI: We have this small, tiny democracy under attack from a giant neighbor Russia. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Saakashvili is fluent, telegenic and omnipresent. The Kremlin has complained that the U.S. was censoring criticism of the Georgian President. But especially in the early days of the crisis, there wasn't much criticism to censor. New Yorker editor and former Washington Post Moscow correspondent David Remnick says the reason isn't hard to fathom. DAVID REMNICK: Well, he's pulled it off largely by the force of his own personality, his ability to communicate directly with the West, to go on CNN and speak fluent English. You remember the Israeli analogy, you know, that Yitzhak Rabin, back in the day, had a harder time communicating with the American public than Benjamin Netanyahu, even though Netanyahu's politics were much father to the right than most Americans and most American Jews.
The fact that a foreign leader can speak English sounds like a banality, but it really is a great advantage when trying to haul in American public opinion and also speak to interlocutors in Washington. BOB GARFIELD: Well, the rewards have been quite rich for him. As you look, especially at the early coverage of the conflict, the language attached to the Georgian military offensive was quite benign, and to the Russian response, why, you would have thought that it was the invasion of Poland in 1939. How did the media get sucked into portraying the sides so differently? DAVID REMNICK: Well, first I'd make a distinction between the news coverage and the commentary. And I think the news coverage, particularly if you look at the places that have a considerable presence on the ground, has been excellent. And it's yet another example of the so-called "mainstream media" spending the money and putting the talent in place to give you a picture of the world. And that is irreplaceable.
The big difference comes from the commentary. When you have people who have never been to that region, who've probably maybe been to Moscow once in their life, who, God knows, have never been to Georgia or South Ossetia or North Ossetia, never have experienced this and never studied the history of these conflicts. And so, they reach for the first set of adjectives in the thesaurus, "thundering tanks" and all the rest, and the first set of historical analogies that they can possibly reach.
And, you know, the good example is William Kristol in The New York Times invoking, not surprisingly, 1938. This is the most popular one, for neo-cons to reach for the notion of Germany, the Sudetenland, Poland — all these analogies that are so familiar to us, and that it becomes blunt political instruments that we remember well in the run-up to the Iraq war. And I find this kind of commentary really a disservice to the truth and utterly useless. BOB GARFIELD: You just mentioned the historical context. This is not quite so simple as good versus evil. Can you somehow briefly tell us how the circumstances in South Ossetia became the circumstances in South Ossetia? DAVID REMNICK: Well, there have been conflicts among these groups preceding the Russian Revolution in 1917, going way back into the Czarist era. But in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States and the West in general took that as an opportunity to reap whatever geo-political advantage it could, whether it was the expansion of NATO to include Poland and Hungary or the Baltic States, or now the Czech Republic, or you know, there are those who would defend ripping up even more recently the ABM Treaty.
Taken together and viewed by Russia — remember, this was an empire, this was the "big other" in the world; it saw itself in a certain way and suddenly it was spiraling downward. Somebody like Vladimir Putin, trained by the KGB, saw this as the great tragedy of — certainly of Russian history. I don't think that Vladimir Putin, as dark a figure as he is in so many ways, has any notion that there is going to be a reconstitution of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the idea that NATO is going to be coming to Ukraine causes him enormous anxiety and anger. Putin very much wanted a demonstration war, a war that could demonstrate Russia's willingness to use force, so that places like Ukraine would think twice about a surge toward joining NATO and the Western sphere of influence. BOB GARFIELD: Was South Ossetia Putin's Grenada, a made-for-TV war to restore confidence in Russia's military might? DAVID REMNICK: Well, I don't think even the most ardent Republican had any illusion that the war in Grenada was one of fantastic military difficulty. Despite the imbalance between Russia and Georgia, a lot of blood — we don't know how much blood has been shed yet in the Caucauses in this instance, but it was not just a piece of cake for all sides. BOB GARFIELD: Could Saakashvili have bet that what would take place is exactly what did take place, in order to increase his sense of moral authority against the big bad Russians? DAVID REMNICK: Well, you know, we're always cautioned in political science class and historical class not to over-personalize these conflicts. But I've got to say that Saakashvili really irritated the hell out of Putin on a personal level. Somehow Saakashvili's personality, his attachment to the West, his image as a darling potentially of NATO and the American administration and foreign policy circles here really grated on Putin. BOB GARFIELD: We've already established that you think the coverage on the ground by the major news organizations was quite good here, and that the commentary was a mess, ill informed and two-dimensional and so forth. Well, what in the world can we do about that? DAVID REMNICK: The problem is everything is what it is, as someone once said, and not something else. And when you have bogus analogies, because they're easy and because they summon up the Nazis or they summon up Stalin and because they are politically convenient in an election year, to draw distinctions between Obama and McCain, it's damaging to the public conception of a reality that's far away and hard to understand. BOB GARFIELD: David Remnick, a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, is the editor of The New Yorker, and also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lenin's Tomb." David, thank you. DAVID REMNICK: My pleasure.