Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Zen Master

Israel disappointed the Government of Georgia, according to press reports. At least two ex-Israelis serve in the Georgian cabinet. Both are former Georgians who immigrated to Israel during difficult times in Georgia and then returned to their homelands.

Not only have the Georgians expressed disappointment, but also the Russian Jewish community, for different reasons. The leader of the Russian Jewish community complained that Georgia was committing atrocities against the separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Some see this move as an example of a worried Russian Jewish community trying to stay on the good side of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Georgia also expressed her disappointment with the U.S.A. for not backing up promises of support with anything more than humanitarian aid. Many political commentators see parallels between August in Georgia in 2008 and August in Prague in 1968 when Russian troops poured in to suppress an incipient independence movement.

According to the daily Haaretz newspaper, “Jews are fighting on both sides of this conflict - on the Georgian side, as part of that country's military. The Jewish military presence here is best personified by Davit Kezerashvili, a former Israeli who speaks fluent Hebrew. Kezerashvili recently told the (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) Joint about Jewish youths joining Ossetian militias loyal to Moscow.”

The precise number of Georgia's Jewish community is vague, but is estimated at somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000. According to local legend, this is the remnant of what was once a large and thriving society that came to the region with the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem 2,600 years ago.

Analysts are busy dissecting the juiciest political event to hit the screens since Barak Obama declared his candidacy. Prof. Barbara Sheffer of Haifa University was interviewed on Israel Televisions Channel 2 and said that the issue wasn’t about oil as much as about natural gas.

Others have pointed out that Georgia is easy pickin’s for the Russians. It is in the panhandle where the natural gas pipelines runs, carrying the precious matter across countries that need to all be on the same page. By cutting off Georgia from the pipeline Russia insures her dominance in the energy sphere.

Other’s point to a reemergence of Russian power in the world, and that Putin has been planning this move for a while. Most commentators pint out that Putin is very different from his predecessors. He doesn’t smoke, stays away from vodka, and prefers to skip lunch and work out in the gym practicing his Judo. Indeed, Putin looks more trim and ready than any of his predecessors. He fits in with the new image of a world leader, in the physical mould at least of Tony Blair and George Bush.

Some of the commentators say that Georgian President Saakashvili went too far too fast. This conflict has been simmering since 1996, when South Ossatia and Assebka declared independence. Russia handed out passports and citizenship to the break away regions.

But it was the Georgians who rolled across the border into the breakaway regions, not the Russians who rolled into Georgia. According to press reports the Georgians didn’t heed a US warning not to invade these regions. That the Russians slapped them down hard was a lesson the Georgians and other countries aligning themselves with the USA and NATO have to take seriously.

The Israeli Government has been working feverishly to extract Israeli citizens from Georgia. Hundreds were stuck there when the fighting broke out ten days ago. A Yideot Achranot reporter on the ground near Gori was shot in the chest and flown back to Israel in serious condition. Some journalists claim that Russian snipers targeted him.

These journalists point to the fact that a few years ago Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was critical of Putin was assassinated. And as one media commentator said, the Russians only had to kill one Journalist for the others to get the message. These observers say that shooting at the foreign journalists covering the conflict gets across the same message. Some journalist reportedly had their cars hijacked, and were robbed by ‘bandits,’ all part of a Russian plan at intimidation.

Media reports appeared that Israelis have been in Georgia for some time training the Georgian army. Retired Israeli general Gal Hirsch, who resigned from the Israeli army after the War in Lebanon II, reportedly ran a security company training Georgian troops. Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon crowed that the Israelis were no longer a military threat, pointing to the Israeli defeat in Lebanon and now the Israeli trained Georgian army’s defeat.

Of course, fighting Russia isn’t the same as fighting Hezbollah. A flea can’t do more than be a nuisance to an elephant, and isn’t noticed at all by a young tiger. Russia looks more than a young tiger than an elephant or even a grumbling bear.

Is Putin going to put Russia back on the map as a superpower? Most analysts think so. He’s nationalized the oil, and turned that wealth, once held briefly by some now jailed Jewish oligarchs, into a substantive cash cow to finance Russia’s reemergence. Using that income Russia can afford to supply Syria, Iran and N. Korea with arms. Some analysts see a shift in power in the region, with Iran, Lebanon and even Iraq seeking shelter under Russia’s wing.

But one is reminded of the phrase Phillip Seymour Hoffman kept tossing at Tom Hanks in the now timely film “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Hoffman’s character, an irreverent CIA agent, was like Yoda, in Star Wars. Hoffman quoted a Zen master, who was told a boy had broken his leg and couldn’t be drafted into the army. “Isn’t that lucky?” he was asked. “We’ll see,” said the Zen master. Of course it turned out the boy’s fate was far from rosy after he had the horse.

Charlie Wilson, an unimportant drunken profligate U.S. Congressman representing a small Texas constituency engineered the arming of the Taliban to defeat the Russians. He took a $5 million budget for insurgency and managed to build it into a $1 billion balloon. He used the Israelis as a cover, since the Israelis possessed captured Russian weapons that could be used against the Soviet Union without the appearance of an obvious USA hand.. The Russians were defeated, driven out of Afghanistan, but then the Taliban took over, and created havoc that has still not abated.

Congressman Wilson’s good intentions were ultimately a disaster. The slow State Department path, draining the Soviet budget by constant badgering without providing huge arms supplies, was ignored in the rush to save the poor Afghan refugees stuck on the Pakistani/Afghani border. These good intentions created a CIA trained Taliban which reared up and bit the world in the neck.

Are there parallels to today’s conflict in Georgia? Should the world jump in and arm Georgia? Clearly President Saakashvili, educated at Columbia University, a staunch supporter of the Western ideals, isn’t anywhere near the Taliban in outlook or ambition. He’s basically a good nerdy flabby guy who pushed the Russian Judo champ too hard.

An article in the International Herald Tribune ( )fits into these new realities. Prof. Nouriel Roubini, an economist at New York University predicted the sub-prime disaster, and said it isn’t over. He also said that the US would never fully recover; never find itself back in the catbird seat as the undisputed economic leader of the world. He even goes so far as to say that the US is on a downward spiral. Of course, former Sec. Of State Henry Kissinger said the same thing back in the 1970’s, and the US is still doing pretty good.

But with the Russians on the rise, again, and the US floundering, locked into battles in Afhanistan and Iraq, perhaps the US is on the descent. Perhaps the peak has been reach. Perhaps U.S. President George Bush is everything his critics have been saying, an Alfred E. Newman right out of Mad Magazine, leading the US into a fateful abyss.

Then again, people said the same thing about Ronald Regan; but in the end strategies implemented under Regan spurred the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now Russia is knocking at the door again, threatening the Ukraine and Poland, worried that NATO will have missiles pointed at Moscow.

Some analysts say that it is more than reasonable for Putin to be worried by this development, and question if perhaps the Neo-Con strategy hasn’t simply unleashed a new genii from the bottle, much as did Charlie Wilson.

As the Zen master would say, “We’ll see.”