Georgia Without the Spin

It’s time for the West to realize that Mikheil Saakashvili is no saint and that Georgia is not quite an innocent victim.

Last August's brief war between Russia and Georgia was fought not only on the rolling hills of South Ossetia, but also on a second front in the international print and broadcast media. If Georgia's military didn't exactly distinguish itself on the first front, its government, particularly its president, thoroughly dominated the second.

From the earliest hours of the conflict, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili took to the airwaves to appeal for international sympathy and assistance. By and large, his efforts worked and the Western public bought the story line of a small democratic ally being bullied by a rogue superpower. Russia's version of the story, that an unbalanced and power-hungry Georgian president was preparing genocide against the ethnic Ossetians, sold well at home but didnt resonate so well internationally.

In recent months, however, a picture of the war more complicated than either sides caricature has emerged. None of the sides remains blameless. But in light of this new information, it is now clear that for U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, constraining Georgia will be a task no less important than containing Russia.

Since the end of hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia proper, Moscow and Tbilisi have continued to trade barbs over the causes and conduct of the war. The origins of the conflict remain murky, with each side rolling out an array of historical analogies masquerading as argument -- from Hitler's 1938 invasion of the Sudetenland to the Soviet Union's military support for an illegitimate Afghan government in 1979. But one point is clear: Western governments, and the United States in particular, failed to discourage a quarrelsome Georgian government from escalating an internal territorial problem to a regional war.

The Russian military response was precipitous and brazen, and has rightly been condemned by outside powers, but the next U.S. administration must learn that brinkmanship is a game that countries can play with friends as well as adversaries. U.S. officials warned Tbilisi of the dangers of using military force, but Saakashvili escalated his rhetoric anyway and took advantage of Western statements that Georgia's path toward consolidated democracy and NATO membership were guaranteed. A history of mixed messages coming from the United States contributed to the Georgian governments sense that a quick, successful war would meet with U.S. approval.

Recent reporting from the Caucasus has questioned Georgias account of the origins of the war. A New York Times investigation by two veteran correspondents found that shelling of civilian areas in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, began far earlier than Georgian authorities had alleged. Amnesty International has condemned the failure of both sides in the war to adequately protect civilians.

Although Georgia's alleged offenses may pale in comparison with the systematic ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages by South Ossetian militias, these recent accounts differ significantly from the initial Western media reports, which were largely based on the Georgian's own public relations efforts.

Unfortunately, President Saakashvili's unquestioning supporters in Washington are still guilty of the same simplistic thinking that helped cause the war. These supporters tend to think of Georgia's interests solely in the context of Russia's nefarious gambits on Eurasia's strategic chessboard. Georgians themselves have a far more nuanced view.

Recent polling by the International Republican Institute does show that more Georgians think the country is headed in the right direction than before the war. But when asked what they fear most, only 8 percent of Georgian respondents named Russian aggression as their primary concern. Forty-eight percent, by contrast, said the resumption of hostilities is their greatest fear. Moreover, the prospect of EU and NATO membership, though a significant issue, remains less important to Georgian's than job creation. So for people on the ground, Russia is neither the obvious aggressor nor the primary threat that outsiders make it out to be.

Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement, emerged from the war with more support than ever. A party that had been on the wane and embroiled in controversy now garners more then 50 percent approval in national polling. But signs of strain are showing in the presidents base. A number of senior political figures who initially supported Saakashvili's handling of the war are now publicly asking tough questions of the administration. In early November, as many as 15,000 opposition supporters rallied in Tbilisi to call for early elections and promised a new wave of protests against Saakashvili's management of the war and its effects.

Western governments would do well to heed the voices of Georgians themselves. They should realize that support for President Saakashvili, support for Georgias de jure borders, and support for Georgian democracy are no longer synonymous positions and might even be mutually exclusive. Georgia's friends should take heed of how Georgian citizens have come to define their national interests -- in ways that are more sophisticated, varied, and pragmatic than their leader would prefer.

Mikheil Saakashvili has overseen important reforms and has inched his country closer toward becoming a genuine European democracy, but the United States is now badly in need of a Georgia policy based on both countries real interests, not one man's savvy marketing campaign.



The Dark Art of Cyberwar

Are cyberattacks warfare? It’s a lot more complicated than you think.

Earlier this summer, the two U.S. presidential candidates -- by then accustomed to jousting their opponents -- took another kind of hit. The FBI and the Secret Service told the Obama and McCain campaigns that hackers had tapped into their networks, looking for clues about likely future policies. The attacks probably originated in China. Hackers from that country have also infiltrated the White House and the Pentagon in recent months, according to news reports. And during the Russia-Georgia conflict, Georgian government Web sites also fell victim to attackers thought to be operating privately from Russia.

But when does a cyberattack become a declaration of war, rather than just a nuisance? The question is not merely academic: In the case of the White House and the Pentagon, key U.S. national security secrets risked being lost. And had Georgia been a NATO member, then other members, bound by mutual defense obligations, might have had to respond to Russia -- not just for its ground assault, but its cyberattacks as well.

Yet in a world increasingly circumscribed by international law, there is scant legal infrastructure to address this new breed of combat. Few countries have detailed legislation, and there is only one major international treaty, the Council of Europe's 2001 Convention on Cybercrime, which has been ratified by just 23 countries.

This legal vacuum could lead to trouble, worries Duncan Hollis, an associate professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law. "If [a country] considers [cyber attacks] acts of war, they have a right under international law to respond with self-defense, and it doesnt just have to be via computer," Hollis says. "[We] need to get together and at least try and figure out what the rules of the game are."

Knowing its members could end up in hackers' cross hairs, NATO has started to look more closely at the laws of cyberwarfare. The organization recently opened the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and a key focus will be how to close the gaps in legal systems that cybercrime has revealed (though researchers will also study a range of other policy and strategic issues, such as how to handle ongoing attacks and Internet users right to privacy).

"The researchers hope some of their suggestions could help guide other entities that are working on cybercrime and cyberwarfare," says Kenneth Geers, a U.S. representative at the Tallinn center. "Law enforcement in general in the U.S. are not sure exactly what they can or cannot do, [as] laws are changing on the fly," he says.

NATO's researchers say one have their toughest challenges will come in defining who the opponent even is. Conventional warfare poses two adversaries head-to-head, but cyberattackers are virtually anonymous -- or at best, difficult to track. Internet traffic traverses continents in fractions of a second. What's more, malicious code sent by a criminal could pass through many countries, and those countries could refuse to pass on any information they have to investigators. Hackers can thus use the looseness of the international system in their favor.

"If I were an American hacker, I would route my traffic through countries with which the U.S. has poor cooperation laws," Geers says. "All of a sudden, you're completely anonymous."

Another tricky question facing NATO is when a virtual attack causes enough real-world damage to constitute an act of war. In the brave new world of cyberwarfare, instead of soldiers firing rockets from a battlefield, "well-fed technicians in air-conditioned rooms, operating in the safety of their home state, could commit an attack on a facility in another state that is of a scale and effect as to constitute an armed attack," warns Davis Brown, a former deputy staff judge advocate at the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency. Last year, a video leaked from the Idaho National Laboratory showed how that might happen. Scientists simulated a computer attack on a power station that caused it to smoke and eventually break down.

National criminal law, moreover, often proves outdated when it comes to cyberattacks. Take, for example, the April 2007 incident when Estonian authorities removed a Soviet-era war memorial from the center of Tallinn. Violent protests broke out among the sizable ethnic Russian minority, and a backlash in the virtual sphere followed. Cyberattacks brought down the Web sites of Estonian banks, ministries, and newspapers.

Yet cyberattackers could receive a maximum sentence of only a handful of years in prison, says Eneken Tikk, an Estonian legal expert at the cybercenter. "Although intruding into a network was prohibited, the punishment for that crime was so low that it was impossible to procedurally initiate covert operations to investigate it," Tikk explains. On top of that, Russian authorities refused to cooperate with the investigation. Prosecutions since then have been limited: In January, an ethnic Russian in Estonia was fined for taking part in the attacks.

Experts suggest that a global treaty is unlikely to resolve all these issues -- it would probably not be ratified by every country, nor would it include the requisite details on how agencies and lawyers should carry out investigations and prosecutions.

There are also calls for lawyers to discuss, in addition to cyberdefense, the types of cyberwarfare that militaries are permitted to engage in. If attacks are confined to the virtual realm, so the thinking goes, 21st-century wars could be a lot less bloody than those of the 20th century. Says Hollis, "We might have less collateral damage if we can decide when cyberwarfare is allowed."