It’s hard to watch the war unfolding in Georgia without a mixture of sadness and déjà vu. The age-old pattern of escalation is being played out again: small skirmishes lead to wider battles as provocations and counter-provocations grow into full-blown war. After months of increased tension the current conflict escalated when Georgia mounted what appears to have been a military offensive in the disputed region of South Ossetia. The conflict quickly inflamed further with a second front opening in Abkhazia where Russia had been deploying troops. The war has now widened with Russian attacks in other parts of Georgia including around the city of Gori.
This is a challenging and serious humanitarian situation with reports that both Georgia and Russia have caused civilian casualties and attacked civilian targets. There are also tens of thousands of displaced persons. Numbers of causalities are hard to confirm but could number in thousands.
"There were rockets in the sky and it was like lightning all the time," one 11 year old boy told staff of the humanitarian organization World Vision. "When we were going from Ergneti to Gori to visit my aunt, they dropped a bomb on the way and the building blocks started to shake. We got scared and we immediately came to Tbilisi," he continued.
As the conflict grew yet again, Russian bombing now includes targets around the Georgian capital of Tbilisi demonstrating that the South Ossetia conflict is widening to a regional war.
Peace Action West supports calls on both sides to respect international law in foreswearing attacks on civilians. We agree with calls for an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian assistance for civilians harmed by this conflict, and the resumption of talks to cope with regional tensions.
Meanwhile the conflict found its way into the American presidential race while the Bush administration is responding with its usual escalatory rhetoric. A Cold War tone was in the air with the U.S. ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalizad accused the Russians of conducting a “campaign of terror against the Georgian population” during a Security Council meeting. Needless to say the Russian ambassador fired back with his own in-your-face rhetoric:
"This statement, Ambassador, is absolutely unacceptable, particularly from the lips of the permanent representative of a country whose actions we are aware of, including with regard to civilian populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia."
Of course it is entirely appropriate for the U.S. to send a firm message to Russia about its actions. But in New York the Bush administration is once again engaging is clumsy diplomacy by using language like "campaign of terror" while seeking diplomatic leverage at very venue the U.S. thumbed its nose at in the run up to the Iraq war.
In fact, the situation in Georgia demonstrates the importance of repairing the moral standing of the Unites States damaged by 8 years of the administration’s unilateralism, militarism and bluster. The next administration needs a new approach. We need a foreign policy based on a creative and robust use of diplomacy, conflict prevention tactics, and international cooperation. Then the U.S. can play a leading role in preventing and stopping these kind of international tensions.