In Escalating Russian-Georgian Conflict, the Cold War is Back

| Sun Aug. 10, 2008 10:56 AM EDT

As Russia stepped up attacks against Georgian moves to reassert control over the breakaway pro-Russian province of South Ossetia, and many civilians were reported killed and thousands displaced, I asked former deputy director of the CIA's Soviet and East Europe division Milt Bearden why Russia and Georgia had chosen to escalate their long simmering dispute over South Ossetia now.

"As far as Russia goes, it's easy: They're baaack!" Bearden said. "And the Russians are doing what comes naturally to them in their new mood. They know the Europeans don't want a face-off with Russia/Gazprom. They know the U.S. is so preoccupied with its own self inflicted disasters that it can do nothing but wring it hands. So why not now? It also would seem to stop NATO enlargement in its tracks. Just imagine Georgia inside NATO, and protected under Article 5!!"

"The US is helpless and Europe won't touch this," Bearden added. "Russia is feeling its oats. And yes, Georgia is George Bush's beacon for liberty in the Caucasus. What's he going to do? The Russians know one thing: how to count the cards. They know that not one of these chickens" will do anything.

I asked Bearden why pro-Western Georgia would have moved now to reassert control over South Ossetia, which at least in part seemed to provoke the Russian invasion. Was Georgia led to believe that the West would come to its aid in a military dispute with Moscow?

Bearden said it was pure miscalculation on Georgia's part. "Almost every conflict in the region begins with a huge miscalculation by one or more parties. The Georgians are fully capable of this miscalculation. They believed they were going to hear the bugles coming over the hill. They are not going to hear anything."

Update: Check out this Washington Post account of a UN emergency meeting on the Georgian crisis the US called yesterday. The US accused Russia of demanding in a confidential conversation with US Secretary of State Rice the removal of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. And the Russians? Russian envoy Vitaly "Churkin accused the United States of aiding and abetting Saakashvili, saying more than 100 U.S. advisers were providing training to Georgian forces on the eve of their military offensive against South Ossetia, and suggested that U.S. officials may have given Georgia the 'green light' to strike." Did the US give Georgia the green light to strike?

Meantime, Georgians on the run question the Bush administration's lofty rhetoric. "Where are our friends?" one retreating Georgian soldier told the Times. Former Clinton foreign policy hands Richard Holbrooke and Ronald Asmus weigh in here.

(Map of Georgia and the surrounding region linked from

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Russia Attacks Georgia, Bush Attacks the Olympic Mountain Bike Course

| Sat Aug. 9, 2008 6:55 PM EDT

Both Jon McCain and Barack Obama commented yesterday on Russia's invasion of Georgia, an event in some ways overshadowed by John Edwards' shenanigans, and the opening of the Olympic games. McCain is taking an aggressive stance saying Russia should "unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces." Obama offered that "now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full-scale war."

Menwhile, George Bush had a busy Saturday in Beijing, biking the Olympic mountain bike course, volleying with beach volleyball players, and posing with the US softball team. Of the course, Bush called it "really, really difficult." In general, Bush seemed to be in his element, that is, among people who see it as their jobs to work out all day. He did take time out at one point to tell reporters that he's "deeply concerned" about "a dangerous escalation in the crisis" in Georgia.

A senior US official has called Russia's attack on Georgia "far disproportionate" to Georgia's alleged attack on Russian peacekeepers. Russia, meanwhile, is likely motivated by Georgia's bid to join NATO, which would bring the alliance to a 475-mile shared border with Russia. Already five of Russia's 14 neighbors are NATO member countries.

China's 'Great Shutdown' Is Scientific Gold

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 9:26 PM EDT

AsianBrownClouda.jpg What happens when you turn off the pollution? Well the Beijing Olympics are giving scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe how the atmosphere responds when a heavily populated region seriously curbs everyday industrial emissions.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography is flying unmanned aerial vehicle to measure smog and its effects on weather during China's 'Great Shutdown.' The flights start at Cheju Island in South Korea, 725 miles southeast of Beijing, and directly in the path of Chinese pollution plumes.

Data from the flights, combined with satellite and ground observations, are tracking dust, soot and other aerosols leaking out of China in atmospheric brown clouds.

Chinese officials have reduced industrial activity by as much as 30 percent and mandated cuts in automobile use by half, to safeguard the health of competing athletes.

Too bad most of Beijing's air quality doesn't have much of anything to do with its own emissions but comes from its own heavily-polluted provinces to the south. Too bad China doesn't make the Great Shutdown permanent. Too bad the whole world doesn't follow. Too bad the athletes' health is more important than everyone else's.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Top Four: Music (Not) to Skate To

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 6:55 PM EDT

badly-drawn-boy-250x200.jpgOk, I admit it: yes, I'm in my 30s, and yes, I still skateboard. Whether this makes me incredibly brave, incredibly stupid, hopelessly juvenile, or the coolest old dude on the block is completely debatable.

Skating is an aggressive sport that can be brutal on your body, so I've always thought that it lends itself to fun, aggressive, loud, or energetic music. But I'm amazed at some of the sad, dreary music I hear being played at skateparks. Here's a sampling of what I've heard:

Who's the Closed Country Now: NBC Withholds Olympics Until It's Damn Well Ready

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 5:55 PM EDT

mojo-photo-olympicslogo.jpgFirst revelation: it turns out the whole world doesn't arrange stuff according to America's prime time TV schedule! Who knew? The opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing kicked off at 8 a.m. Eastern Time, and one would imagine that NBC, understanding the demand for immediacy in the decentralized internet age, would broadcast it live, right? Nope. At the time of the ceremony, NBC was broadcasting a cooking segment on the Today show. For the billions of dollars they paid for the rights, they're going to get their money's worth, and that means the opening ceremony will be delayed 12 hours so American audiences can watch it after dinner, with what I can only assume will be a whole lot of commercials.

After the jump: your desire for immediate access to information makes you a criminal!

John Edwards Confirms that the National Enquirer is Credible

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 4:05 PM EDT

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about today's revelation that John Edwards—in the midst of launching a presidential campaign—indeed had an affair, is that the National Enquirer was spot on, eight months ago. In his ABC confessional, to air tonight on Primetime, Edwards points out that the Enquirer got it right when it reported that he met with his lady friend at the Beverly Hilton two weeks ago. Edwards still denies the baby-daddy accusation, saying he is not the father of Rielle Hunter's child, though DNA may be called for given his truth track record here.

Makes one wonder, did the DNC finally have its act together on this one? Think about it, if his "friends and supporters" knew enough to perhaps pay her living expenses (which Edwards suggests in tonight's interview) then perhaps some organized party machinery pushed him out of the limelight just in time. I mean, the man with the Plan to Build One America, set out some lofty plans for this country. But Americans want their politicians faithful and straight (or at least as far as they know).

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New Liberal Group Gets Tough With Conservative Donors

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 2:44 PM EDT

You could call it an attempt by long-beleaguered liberals to finally stop Swift Boat groups before they to attack Democratic candidates. You could also call it scare tactics.

Tom Matzzie, the former Washington director of and Judd Legum, the research director for Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, have teamed up to create Accountable America, a group independent of the Obama campaign and the DNC that will identify, publicize, and potentially create legal headaches for donors who fund conservative attack groups.

Accountable American will "deter Swift Boating groups by discouraging contributions to the groups," said Matzzie on a conference call Friday afternoon with reporters. By publicizing the misdeeds of the groups and the sometimes sordid histories of the people who enable them, Matzzie said, the group will "create a sense of scandal around donating to these groups."

The Politics You'll See As You Watch 100M Hurdles

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 11:51 AM EDT

I mentioned earlier that the presidential campaign will essentially go on a short hiatus, starting today and lasting for a week or so. Don't think the lack of news will mean a stop to the TV ads, though, especially if you live in a battleground state.

Barack Obama has released his ad that will play during the Olympics. It's here:

A new McCain ad that will also be showing in the next few days is here:

U.S. Places Violent Iraqi Prisoners In Standing Coffins

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 11:21 AM EDT

The United States. Not China. Not Zimbabwe.

The U.S. military is segregating violent Iraqi prisoners in wooden crates that in some cases are not much bigger than the prisoners.
The military released three grainy black-and-white photos of what it calls the "segregation boxes" used in Iraq. They show the rudimentary structures of wood and mesh. Some of the boxes are as small as 3 feet by 3 feet by 6 feet tall, according to military officials. They did not release a picture of a box that size.
The military said the boxes are humane and are checked every 15 minutes. It said detainees, who stand in the boxes, are isolated for no more than 12 hours at a time.

Here's how the story was uncovered. You can see the photos at the link — they're like something out of the Great Escape.

So, Why Do We Hate Us? New Book Tries to Explain

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 9:54 AM EDT


I was born in the 1970s, and even at my tender age, have fallen victim to a creeping cynicism (too often expressed in the form of easy sarcasm) that has me worried lately. I'm too young for such negativity. I haven't earned that badge. Not yet, anyway. For years, I chalked it up to a generational entitlement: after all, isn't my brood, Generation X, defined by its feelings of apathy and emotional confusion? That was the message of popular culture at the time. (Just watch "Reality Bites" or read Douglas Coupland's Generation X.) And it's the culture that is the problem, writes Dick Meyer in his new book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.

Meyer, the editorial director of digital media at NPR, ticks off the many widely shared annoyances of everyday life: telemarketers, pedestrians with eyes glued to their iPhones, t-shirts emblazoned with vulgar or stupid messages, and the ever-expanding menu of inane reality TV shows.* Lest you think he's just a grumpy old man, he also takes on weightier subjects, such as the impact of social networking sites, the decline of "organic communities," the all-pervasive presence of marketing, and our national worship of celebrity, among many other things. All told, it's a composite of exactly the sort of cultural ugliness that feeds our collective distrust of government, the media, entertainment, and each other.

If, like me, you believe that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but you're not sure what, give Meyer's book a read. You'll laugh, if nothing else, and might just find that it helps you to look on the bright side of things.

*I have an iPhone, some stupid t-shirts, and have been known to enjoy certain reality TV shows. I have never worked as a telemarketer.