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The New York Times' Biggest Screw-up Since They Sold the War in Iraq

Deconstructing the NYT fairy tale of the poor innocent small democracy of Georgia attacked by a cruel Cold War Russian monster.

You may not have noticed it, but a couple of weeks ago, the  New York Times slipped in a story that completely contradicted a narrative that it had been building up for two straight months, one that was leading America into another war-a so-called "New Cold War." The article exposed the awful authoritarian reality of Georgia's so-called democracy, painting a dark picture of President Mikhail Saakashvili's rule that repudiated the fairy tale that the  Times and everyone else in the major media had been pushing ever since war broke out in South Ossetia in early August. That fairy tale went like this: Russia (evil) invaded Georgia (good) for no reason whatsoever except that Georgia was free. Putin hates freedom, and Saakashvili is the "democratically elected leader" of a "small, democratic country."

Yes, it was only a month ago that we were stupid and crazy enough to think that the United States had no choice but to launch a costly new cold war against a nuclear power, even though we still haven't closed the deal on a couple of mini-wars against Division-III opponents, and we were on the verge of bankruptcy. Ah, to be blissfully nave-and bloodthirsty at the same time-wasn't it wonderful?

As the South Ossetia war raged in early- and mid-August, the  Times published an editorial labeling Georgia's invasion as " Russia's War of Ambition"; it also published a series of hysterical op-eds, including  William Kristol's comparing Russia to Nazi Germany (Hitler's charred skull must be spinning in its museum case from being turned into the cheapest clich in the hack's analogy box), and another from  Svante E. Cornell of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins-the same corruption-plagued institute that ABC News discovered was taking money from Kazakhstan's tyrant for issuing positive reports about that authoritarian oil-rich country.

Cornell 's piece argued that Russia attacked Georgia not in response to Georgia's invasion of the breakaway South Ossetian province but rather because Russia was just plain evil-and, in the style of evil villains everywhere, Russia had no motive other than to show "the consequences post-Soviet countries will suffer for standing up to Moscow, conducting democratic reforms and seeking military and economic ties with the West."

The hysteria of two months ago already seems so dated and even bizarre, from our mid-meltdown vantage-as if reading the hysteria from a black-and-white era.

And yet even as the hysteria gave way to serious questioning, and that dangerously simple narrative crumbled, the  Times never recanted or corrected itself, never even had a fake mea culpa moment as it did after Iraq-an admission that came years too late. Instead of recanting, the  Times took the sly road, slipping an article in between the meltdown stories that essentially told its readers, "Yeah, we screwed the pooch on Georgia, hope ya didn't notice, and, uh, have a nice day." Here's a taste, from October 7, 2008 ("  News Media Feel Limits to Georgia's Democracy," by Dan Bilefsky and Michael Schwirtz):

TBILISI, Georgia-The cameras at Georgia's main opposition broadcaster, Imedi, kept rolling Nov. 7, when masked riot police officers with machine guns burst into the studio. They smashed equipment, ordered employees and television guests to lie on the floor and confiscated their cellphones. A news anchor remained on-screen throughout, describing the mayhem. Then all went black

Now, 11 months later, Georgia's democratic credentials are again being questioned, and tested, as the country finds itself on the front line of a confrontation between Russia and the West. Georgia and its American backers, including the Republican and Democratic United States presidential contenders, have presented Georgia as a plucky little democracy in an unstable region, a country deserving of generous aid and NATO membership. But a growing number of critics inside and outside the country argue that it falls well short of Western democratic standards and cite a lack of press freedom as a glaring example.

It's interesting that the  Times published this exactly two months after Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia-a military decision so off-the-scale idiotic that to call it a "gamble" is an insult to struggling addicts like Bill Bennett.

The real question, then, is why the  Times waited until this late to question its own position-why wait until the war was long off the front pages, to publish an article about what everyone with an ounce of journalistic curiousity already knew-that Saakashvili was about as much a democrat as he was a military genius?

The push in the West by outlets like the  New York Times and the  Washington Post to get a new cold war on hinged on two major fallacies: (1) that Russia invaded Georgia first, totally unprovoked, because Georgia is a "democracy"; and (2), that Georgia is a "democracy."

It's as if the  Times deliberately forgot  what it already reported about Saakashvili last year, after he sent in his goon squads to crush opposition protests:

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