Dickey: Saakashvili and the Dangers of Defiance

After my recent travels through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas to assess the impact of Barack Obama's candidacy on the old Confederacy, my NEWSWEEK colleague John Barry sent me a note about his days reporting on the presidential campaign of George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, back in 1968. Wallace's race-baiting populism eventually was sanitized and absorbed into the Republican Party's successful "Southern strategy," but Wallace himself was much rougher and more honest in his opinions than his mainstream emulators. He knew that what attracted Southern voters to him was not so much what he stood for, but the many things he stood against. "You got to understand," he told Barry one day as he gazed at the statue of a Confederate soldier in his home town, "All we've had is defiance."

That's it, I thought. That is what Yale professor C. Vann Woodward was saying when he wrote in the 1960s that Southerners were different from other Americans precisely because a century before, in the 1860s, they became the only white people in the United States to be conquered and occupied. All they had left was their attachment to defiance, which lingered for generations and remains among some Southerners to this day.

Defiance has ever been the sustenance of the weak and defeated, the overpowered, the demeaned and the enslaved. It is the essence of "Forget, hell!" but also of "We Shall Overcome." It is what a Roman Catholic academic in Northern Ireland called "f--- you rage and resentment." It is at the core of the Palestinian cause, and of Iraqi resentment and resistance. Whether noble and courageous or just bloody-minded and intransigent, the instinct for defiance is a defining, driving force in national and international affairs. But it is not one that Washington has ever understood very well, and that has meant, quite literally, a world of trouble.

As we've seen in the Caucasus over the last week, the desire to appear defiant can lead to enormous miscalculations by a leader who thinks Washington will back his play. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have believed he could rely on solid Bush administration support when he attacked Russian forces in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. After all, the Bush administration had sent more than 1,000 troops to Georgia for a joint exercise just last month. It talked up Georgian membership in NATO despite deep misgivings by many European allies. Privately it warned Saakashvili not to provoke the Russians, but he seems to have missed that point, deciding to defy the odds, as well as Moscow, and launch his offensive.

A more thoughtful man might have recalled the way Hungarians fighting the Soviets, Argentines fighting the Brits, Shiites and Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein in the 1990s thought they could depend on Washington to come to their rescue, only to be deceived and then destroyed. But when you're caught up in the romantic cause of defying the enemy you sometimes start defying reason, as well.

In the case of Georgia, the Bush administration seems to be confused and posturing--upping the ante with humanitarian aid but clearly leery of military confrontation. Having done so much to sap American economic and military strength and diminish its own diplomatic credibility over the last seven years, the White House now finds itself peculiarly vulnerable to the one-upmanship of its defiance-driven friends, who cannot win wars by themselves, but can start fights that Washington may feel it has to finish. Today that risk is front and center in the Caucasus. Tomorrow the same sort of situation could be created in the Middle East, where a defiant Iran is squared off against a defiant Israel. If the Israelis decide it's time to start bombing Iran's nuclear installations, whether or not the U.S. is consulted beforehand, it will wind up at war.

One wishes we had American statesman today who better understood the dynamics of defiance, and its dangers. There was a time when we did, and it's not surprising that some of the most notable came from the South. George C. Marshall, whose roots were in Virginia, used American wealth to alleviate the suffering and diminish the resentments of the defeated peoples in Europe after World War II. Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas denounced the arrogance of power that "confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence." As Fulbright wrote, "Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great power assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work"--and lesser powers and peoples come to believe they must defy it in order to maintain any dignity or independence. Such good judgment led Fulbright to promote multilateralism and the international fellowship program that bears his name, as well as to oppose the Bay of Pigs and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Yeah, we could use more like him today.

In the meantime, a hopeful sign, perhaps, could be another current of defiance I found among Southerners I met on my travels who were proudly living Blue in the Red States. My 82-year-old cousin, Jean Dickey White in Murphy, N.C., said she was raised voting for Democrats, her people had always fared better under them, and, even though it was hard to vote for someone who seemed as different from everyone she knew as Barack Obama, she was going to vote Democratic this time around, too. Jay Srymanske, 58, who runs river trips on the rapids of the Cartecay and what's left of the Coosawatee in north Georgia, says he's "a yellow dog Democrat," who'd just as soon vote for that yellow dog on the porch as for a Republican. When I went up to Kathryn Heath and Sarah George at a Starbucks in a posh suburb of Charlotte, N.C., they had books piled high in front of them, exchanging favorite titles. They said they were Obama supporters. I said I thought that might be the case somehow. "You mean because we read?" said Heath, a corporate leadership consultant.

But one of the most memorable moments came in Spartanburg, S.C., after eating dinner with John Lane and his wife, Betsy Teter, who are pillars of the town's art and culture scene and who dare to put magnetized OBAMA '08 stickers on their cars. It was late. We'd been talking to a young waitress whose boyfriend is dying of cancer, and we were all moved by what she had to say about the need for better health care. And then as Betsy walked toward her car, she said, "It's gone," and we all knew what she meant: the Obama sticker. "Happens all the time," she said. "Wait." She started looking around the parking lot as if she'd dropped her keys. And sure enough, about 20 yards away, there it was on the ground. Somebody had flung it away like a Frisbee. Betsy just put it back on her car, in her quiet way defying the old defiance of the South.