After Russia invaded Georgia with the same Soviet-style, imperialist, bullying ways the world grew to hate so much during the Cold War, we got a chance to see how Barack Obama reacts to a crisis. He blinked.
He called for diplomacy and restraint by Russia, which was OK if not half serious enough, but he also called for restraint by Georgia, which is a bit like seeing a 200-pound man whacking a 130-pound woman with a two-by-four and saying, "Excuse me, lady, but please don’t hurt this guy."
Give him some credit. As time passed and the fact of Russia’s massacre-minded viciousness became even more difficult to deny than it was after initial reports, Obama began talking tougher. Still, the really tough talk mostly emanated from a campaign advisor, Susan Rice, who blasted John McCain for having said early on something close to what Obama eventually said.
"John McCain shot from the hip, (a) very aggressive, belligerent statement," she is quoted as having said on MSNBC. "He may or may not have complicated the situation."
McCain may have complicated the situation? Vladimir Putin is plotting his moves in Georgia based on what the presumptive Republican candidate for president is saying? If this remark demonstrates the cerebral prowess to be found in the Obama camp, we had better hope Obama finds different advisers if elected president.
The actuality is that John McCain’s take on Russia’s aggression is pretty much the middle-of-the-road position right now.
People from all over the ideological spectrum are saying that if Russia insists on murderous conquest, it ought to be expelled from the influential international forum known as the Group of Eight. The liberal New York Times suggests in an editorial that Russia ought to be denied membership in the World Trade Organization if it does not behave responsibly. Obama himself is discussing making Georgia a member of NATO, which would mean a future attack on that country would bring U.S. arms into the story.
Right now, of course, no one — not McCain nor anyone else — is calling for the United States to go to war with Russia, although there are those who take a nearly opposite, appeasing tack, who say that it’s crucial to get along merrily with Russia because it will otherwise become more of a danger.
The likelier truth is that bad behavior will be followed by more bad behavior in the absence of consequences. Avoiding a wide-ranging war is devoutly to be wished — and unlikely of accomplishment by hiding in the bushes.
Didn’t we learn that during the Cold War? The Soviet Union collapsed in part because of its own internal failures, but also because of a containment policy going back to President Truman and of fresh challenges thrown its way by President Reagan.
The great fear has to be that Russia is once more intent on becoming the kind of power it was in those bad, old days, and the great hope has to be that the West will have the moral and intellectual wherewithal to turn back those ambitions if they become evident.
Would Obama be leader enough as president to thwart the Russians if that became necessary? His immediate reaction to the Russian invasion is not promising, but hardly provides a definitive answer; it was not much different from the first reaction of the White House. And yet that reaction is accompanied by a worrisome inexperience, and some of Obama’s ideas about dealing with adversaries — troop withdrawals in Iraq dictated by timetables instead of conditions on the ground, summit discussions that could offer the other side propagandistic advantages — are hardly encouraging.
It’s also the case that McCain did not blink.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)