Mark Grimsley has a piece on his search for historical analogies to the war in Ossetia. I’ve been having trouble coming up with one, and I think one of the key facts about this conflict is the reason. The important point here, and the flaw with the Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan references, is that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili started this war. Sure, there were constant skirmishes and sniping and banditry, but this is the Caucasus. Saakashvili escalated the conflict by a major military effort to exert control over South Ossetia, and he knew he was escalating it–witness the Georgian references (before everything went south) to “restoring constitutional order in South Ossetia.” There have been references in the press coverage to the Bush administration having to dissuade Saakashvili from war previously–something clearly went wrong this time.
And that’s the reason why I have trouble coming up with analogies here. Great Powers smack around their smaller neighbors all the time, sometimes successfully, sometimes not (Soviets in Afghanistan, China in Vietnam) But smaller neighbors very seldom yank the chains of their Great Power neighbors, for the obvious reason that it’s world-record-class stupidity. The closest I can come, and I admit it’s not perfect, is Kosovo: Milosevic clearly believed he could act with impunity in Kosovo, despite a clearly stated American position that he needed to reach a political settlement there, and found out he was wrong. As a British commentator put it, Saakashvili is no Milosevic. Still, that’s as close as I can get.