The Georgian confict: McCain’s blunder

We just lost the first battle of what may be a New Cold war. McCain was in there helping us lose.

There seems to be some dismay in “progressive” circles that Barack Obama has not used the Georgian crisis to establish his superior command of foreign policy nuance by staking out a less hawkish posture than McCain’s. I think this would have been a huge mistake. Lots of voters, especially the older voters with whom Obama still has to make the sale, remember the “evil empire,” and for them “tough on the Russkies” is going to sound better than “soft on the Russkies,” especially with Russian bombers hitting Georgian cities.

It’s certainly right to say that McCain’s policy of making as many enemies as possible for the country is foolish and doesn’t respect the limits of our power, but I’d be surprised if that message could be communicated to a low-information swing voter in the last 90 days of a Presidential campaign. (Though Obama might mention that Russian aggression in Georgia was encouraged by the fact that our army was tied down in Iraq.) Substantively, I don’t think this is the time to give Putin & Co. the impression that their latest move has support on the American political scene, or that their attempt to blame the victim is succeeding.

Superficially (and of course the Republicans are masters of the superficial) this week’s events vindicate McCain’s warnings that Russia is a menace to navigation. If McCain were running against Bush, who famously looked into Putin’s soul and liked what he saw, he’d have a reasonable claim to have better understood events than his opponent did. But of course he’s not running against Bush, and Obama carries no such baggage.

Josh Marshall offers another way to look at the problem, though: while Russia is clearly in the wrong for invading Georgia, events have shown that Mikhail Saakashvili’s decision to try to retake control of South Ossetia was a disastrous blunder. McCain and his Randy Scheunemann (Saakasvili’s lobbyist and McCain’s adviser) were active participants in setting up this disaster by encouraging Saakashvili to believe, wrongly, that he had American sanction for his actions and that we would back him up.

Did “Misha” ask for McCain’s advice before making his disastrous gamble? Did McCain warn his “good friend” that if the Russian tanks rolled Georgia was going to be on its own? If McCain was so prescient about the evil nature of the Russian empire, shouldn’t he have expected the invasion? Did he tell “Misha” about the importance of closing the tunnel? Did he talk to the President or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the Director of National Intelligence and ask for active satellite monitoring of the Russian side of the tunnel?

Georgia may have been justified in its attempt to retake control of South Ossetia, but Misha and his American advisers forgot Napoleon’s first military maxim: “If you start out to take Vienna, take Vienna.”

If a new Cold War is really starting &#8212 not likely, but not impossible &#8212 our side just lost the first battle, and John McCain and his adviser Randy Scheunemann were right there, giving bad advice. Is this man qualified to be President? Does he pass the Commander-in-Chief test?

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: