Georgia, Iraq, and Athenian Justice

“Justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it … [W]e have a right to rule … the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.”

While the Bush administration may disagree, this ancient Athenian quote applies equally to the Russian invasion of Georgia on August 8, 2008 and Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

This statement was originally addressed to the leaders and residents of the small Greek island of Melos 2,439 years ago. The Athenians invaded Melos to prevent the possibility of future hostile actions. The Athenians killed all men of military age (about 600 of them) and enslaved the rest. While some may disdain such a brutal approach, others will recognize that this philosophy is the same as the United States under Bush’s, and now Russia’s, approach to modern foreign policy.

Over the course of history, states with great power do what they want. If moral reasoning happens to support their action they will use it, but it is not necessary. As seen in Iraq and now in Georgia, states can easily manufacture reasons for military action. This is not new. One of the most infamous uses of Hitler’s intellectuals justified heinous crimes against humanity by publishing thousands of books and articles demonizing Jews and others that they considered to be the children of lesser gods.

Reading from the Athenian playbook, the Russians demonized the Georgians by declaring the Georgians to be the aggressors, claiming that they were committing genocide against ethnic Russians. It did not help that the bombastic, reckless leader of Georgia was first to invade the separatist South Ossetians. The two disputed regions — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — were semi-autonomous regions with Russian “peacekeepers” stationed in them. Instead of using diplomatic persuasion and the United Nations to resolve the issues of these semi-autonomous regions in Georgia, the Russians invaded Georgia instead. A few short weeks later the President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, announced that Russia was recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s independence.

Seeking their own brand of Athenian justice, the Russians wanted to teach a lesson to the Georgians and send a powerful message to other former Soviet Union countries such as Ukraine. The Russians put on display that their military can exact what they want and the weak Georgians (and other outlying regions) will grant what they must.

But the Russians didn’t have to look back to ancient times to learn how to invade another country. In 2003, the United States set a powerful example in demonizing the Iraqi government and many of its people. Bush and his advisers thought they could take Iraq because it was weak and it served their political interests: an important strategic location, oil, and a foothold to fight for our allies in the region. Demonizing Saddam Hussein was not hard to do. His earlier invasion of Kuwait mirrored that of Georgia’s military incursion. Like the United States, Russia ignored diplomacy and the UN when it made the rush to war. In both Georgia and Iraq, a sovereign nation was invaded contrary to all international laws with very little support from other nations. But invasions usually do not turn out the way the invaders desire. Russia should remember the lessons from its invasion of Afghanistan. And certainly, the disaster of post-invasion Iraq should serve as a warning to what can easily happen after a “successful” attack.

Instead of recognizing that the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq served as a model for Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently denounced Russian’s invasion of Georgia. Rice said, “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government, and get away with it.”

Our hypocritical policies have never been so starkly evident. The Georgian crisis may only be the first to emulate Bush’s invasion of Iraq in the post-Cold War era. Hopefully our next president will demonstrate that the policies and words of George Bush and Condoleezza Rice are an American aberration, and not an example. The world cannot afford to live by Athenian “justice” anymore.

Adil E. Shamoo, a Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst, is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy. Bonnie Bricker is an FPIF contributor writing on issues of politics and public policy.