The fog of war in Georgia is very thick. Disinformation from both sides and early reports from outsiders have us wondering about the extent of the casualties (2,000 in the first days or a couple of hundred), and who started it.
At this point, it looks like the Georgian leadership made a serious error: embarking on a campaign to take control of a rebel area inhabited by one of the many ethnic groups of the Caucasus, in the hope that the United States, NATO, or somebody else would protect it from the likelihood of Russian intervention.
One guess is that the timing was linked to the Olympics, in the hope that the world would not notice the Georgian incursion.
If that was part of the planning, it did not distract the Russians.
Now we hear that the Georgians are stopping their combat, but the Russians are continuing. Reports are that they are attacking the international airport, and demanding the resignation of the Georgian president as the price of peace.
If Georgia disappears as an independent state as a result of this, if it causes another energy crises, produces a renewal of the Cold War or worse, it will rank on the order of American efforts to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan as among the worse mistakes of the decade.
The Caucasus has even more enclaves than the Balkans, and the people may be even less restrained in what they do to one another when annoyed. Wikipedia notes that the region is home to more than 50 ethnic groups. Remember what the Chechens did in Moscow before or after what the Russians did in Chechnya, and the slaughter at the school in Beslan. Since Thursday we have heard about fighting between Georgians, Ossetians, Abkhazians, and the Russian army, with the Russians concerned, among other things, with the Russian population of Ossetia.
It will be a task to learn the spelling of all the tribes, and then to acquire some knowledge of their histories and their hates.
"Late Marriage," an Israeli film from about 10 years ago, is a good introduction to Georgian culture.
There are substantial Jewish Georgian populations there and here. We saw the chair of the Georgian parliament on Israeli television news last night, answering questions in decent Hebrew.
Retired IDF officers, including a couple of generals, were involved in training Georgian troops. Today one of them is saying that he would not have done what the Georgians did.
His comments are part of a view widely expressed that, no matter what justice might be found in the Georgians' concern for part of their territory (South Ossetia), it was a mistake to provoke the Russians on what, for them, was bound to be a sensitive issue of controlling their own border area.
We are hearing of the problems of Israeli tourists, many of them on family visits, trying to get out of Georgia as fast as they can. Emissaries of the Jewish Agency are helping Jews leave the war zone, and there is one report of a family deciding to migrate to Israel.
The sudden onset of this war is one more reminder that the future is too complex for any kind of rigid planning. There are many domestic and international variables affecting so many different developments in various domestic and international sectors. And there are dramatic developments, viewed as surprises by people who were not looking closely at everything.
We want leaders to have general goals that we accept, but flexibility is essential.
Coping with fluid realities, and not making things worse are the keys to survival and prosperity. Essential for most countries is staying out of the way of Georgia's war with the Russians, and America's adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325