Why are these two items not the same?

The Serbian government waged war on the Kosovars, driving 80% of them from their homes. The Georgian government did no such thing in either South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

There’s a good case to be made that the U.S. shouldn’t have encouraged Georgia to get tough with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The results speak for themselves.

And there’s a good case to be made that the U.S. should tell the Georgians they simply have to make the best deal they can with their bigger neighbor, on two grounds: (1) We don’t have the military or diplomatic or economic muscle to make the Russians back down; and (2) we need Russian help in dealing with Iran, terrorism, China, and whatever else. Tough on the Georgians, of course, but as the Athenians told the Melians a long time ago, “The question of justice arises only among equals. Among unequals, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”*

But none of that justifies some of the nonsense being talked over the past few days. In particular, the claim that no one who supported independence for Kosovo from Serbia can consistently reject the claim of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for independence from Georgia, which is being made all over the place, makes sense only in the presence of either ignorance of the facts or moral blindness.

The difference is simple: the Georgians haven’t done in South Ossetia or Abkhazia anything like the horrible things the Serbian government &#8212 fresh from its attempted genocide in Bosnia &#8212 did in Kosovo.

Human Rights Watch:

All told, government forces expelled 862,979 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, and several hundred thousand more were internally displaced, in addition to those displaced prior to March 1999. More than 80 percent of the entire population of Kosovo-90 percent of Kosovar Albanians-were displaced from their homes.

Now I don’t think anyone can claim with a straight face that a government which has displaced 80% of the entire population of a province still has a legitimate claim to rule that province. Nor can any claim any comparable act by Georgia against either of its breakaway provinces.

Yes, there’s been ethnic cleansing aplenty: the Abkhaz warlord, with Russian support, drove 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes, and their return remains a hot issue in Georgian politics. But Georgia has done nothing even remotely comparable.

Also, of course, Kosovo is an independent country; the goal of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz leadership and its sponsors in Moscow is reunification with Russia.

So if you want to take a “realist” perspective and say we just need to tell the Georgians to suck it up, I’ll listen respectfully. But don’t try to fool yourself, or me, by pretending that Georgia somehow “asked for it” and that the Kosovo precedent means that it’s fine for a big power to absorb pieces of its neighbors.

* I’m paraphrasing from memory; the dialogue, almost certainly invented, is in Thucydidies.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com