Toughness and bellicosity

Senator John McCain talks during his Straight Talk Express town hall meeting in York, PA. (Photo by Clem Murray / Inquirer)

When John McCain asserted yesterday that "I know I speak for every American...we are all Georgians," millions of Americans probably wondered, "What's he talking about? Did a hurricane hit Savannah or something?"

Over the past five days, McCain has been marketing his flinty response to the Russia-Georgia crisis as prime evidence of his commander-in-chief credentials. What better way to trump Barack Obama, he figures, than to exhibit how much tougher he would be when that red phone rings at three in the morning? The public already prefers McCain over Obama when national security is at stake - in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, he is viewed, by 50 to 41 percent, as more trustworthy to handle "an unexpected major crisis" - and Russia's invasion of Georgia would appear to be a golden opportunity to widen that margin. Indeed, McCain badly needs to accomplish that task; in the polls, he has virtually no other issue advantages over Obama.

So when Russia (run by the thuggish Vladimir Putin) invaded Georgia (a fledgling democracy) last Friday, McCain was quick off the mark to condemn the invader, and he has remained consistent ever since. Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, was initially more even-handed, calling on both nations to show "restraint," but in a series of subsequent statements he has toughened his language against Russia. In political/perceptual shorthand, McCain would appear to be the more decisive of the two men in this crisis, and therefore the winner.

But before McCain's campaign aides slap five in celebration, they might want to consider several caveats.

As I mentioned in passing yesterday, most Americans probably don't have the faintest clue what this crisis is all about (which means that McCain was quite presumptuous when he declared that "we are all Georgians"). It's safe to say that Americans are far more concerned about selling their SUVs at book value than they are about the dire territorial issues that have plagued Russia-Georgia relations since the latter broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991. Maybe McCain can exploit this crisis for campaign season advantage by effectively framing the situation as "Russia Bad, Georgia Good" - after all, we tend to like it when foreign complexities are reduced to bad guys and good guys - but that brings us to another caveat:

The role played by the Bush administration - with longstanding support from McCain - in precipitating this crisis.

For years, the Bush foreign policy team has tilted heavily toward Georgia in its ongoing disputes with Russia, clearly leaving the impression (at least in the minds of Georgians) that the U.S. would come to Georgia's aid if the two nations clashed militarily. Bush told Georgia, during a 2005 visit, that "the path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone." Bush has sent American military advisors to build up the Georgian troops - who reportedly staged a joint exercise last month with 1,000 American soldiers. Bush has also urged bringing Georgia into NATO, a move long supported by McCain. The president has not been successful in fast-tracking membership, but here's the thing: Under the NATO treaty, members are required to defend other members. All for one and one for all. Which means that if Georgia was currently a member of NATO, we'd be warring militarily with Russia. 

It gets more complicated. Georgia has long been in conflict with two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia - both of which want independence, both of which are supported by Russia. Georgia has sought to quell the separatist movements in those regions, and apparently assumed that the U.S. would come to its aid in any showdown with Russia. McCain has also fed that impression; last April, he got on the phone with the president of Georgia and expressed his solidarity - after a briefing with top foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann, a neoconservative whose private lobbying firm signed a contract this spring to provide Georgia with strategic advice.

Obama, it must be noted, has also supported NATO membership for Georgia; however, in July he publicly urged Georgia not to launch any military attacks in the breakaway regions. But Georgia, apparently fortified with what it viewed to be sufficient American solidarity, overreached late last week and launched a military attack in South Ossetia. Which in turn triggered the massive Russian response. Which in turn triggered McCain's outrage about "Russian aggression," and his warning of "negative consequences" for Russia (all of which was echoed by Dick Cheney, who warned darkly, "Russian aggression must not go unanswered"). Then, on the radio yesterday, McCain took his statements up a notch, declaring: "I think it's very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian empire." Then, at a fundraising lunch today, McCain (who now says he speaks daily with Georgia's president) warned again that the Russians are thirsting for empire, and said that he is dispatching two of his top campaign surrogates, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, off to Georgia. 

Rhetorically, at the very least, a certain somebody needs to take a chill pill.

Maybe, in domestic campaign shorthand, McCain looks good by acting so tough. But is it wise, geopolitically speaking, for McCain to frame this crisis as the first manifestation of a new Cold War between east and west? Or to beat the drums about "negative consequences" when, in reality, there is very little (aside from diplomacy) that we can do to confront Russia in a region it views as a traditional sphere of influence - particularly since our own military is seriously overstretched, thanks to a disastrous Middle Eastern war, launched under false pretenses, that McCain promoted from the outset?

Maybe, on closer inspection, there is a thin and dangerous line between toughness and bellicosity.