09/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We'll Always Have Hungary

Who remembers the Hungarian revolution?

I do, for one. I was a teenager who watched in horror on my black-and-white TV as gallant young Hungarians went up against Russian tanks in beat-up old trucks in 1956. They waited in vain for American help. It never came, and the Iron Curtain once again clanged shut around them.

John McCain is certainly old enough to recall the Hungarian revolution. He should remember how Radio Free Europe (our propaganda station) kept sending messages for those behind the Iron Curtain to revolt, with the implied message that America would be there to help.

So why is McCain using bellicose cold war rhetoric about the situation in Georgia when he knows that, just like in 1956, American guns will lie silent in the face of Russian aggression?

Unfortunately, as I flipped around the cable channels, I heard a number of commentators, both right and left, say that this is a "winning issue" for McCain.

It's a winner only if the American people have no historical memory, and are too lazy to look up stuff. McCain's saber-rattling is the same neo-conservative garbage that got us into Iraq in the first place.

Yes, Putin & company are ruthless autocrats and Russia is a petrodollar state trailing streams of its former glory. Definitely not the good guys. But we are seeing a minor replay of l956 in Georgia?

The Bushies have handled Russia as if they were ignorant of the complicated history of the Caucasus and Eastern, Europe. Despite his early infatuation with Putin's "soul," President Bush has been jabbing a stick in the eye of the Russian bear, and bears do not behave well when they are baited. The U.S. has been urging former satellite states on the Russian border to join NATO. The Russians don't like it. Imagine if the Warsaw Pact had admitted Canada and Mexico to its ranks. We have also been arguing for a missile shield for the old client states, saying that it's really protection from Iran and Al Qada. Right. Osama is sitting in his cave studying maps of Warsaw, saying, "We must attack Poland to extend the Caliphate."

McCain's bellicosity is simplistic--much like many of his foreign affairs mantras, like "Victory" in Iraq.

Like the gallant young people in Hungary, Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, may have been deceived into thinking America would come to his aid if the bear slouched his way. (And, he has a reputation in some quarters as a bit of a hothead. )

As Newsweek senior editor Michael Hirsh noted, "Since the cold war ended, the United States has been pushing the buttons of Russian frustration and paranoia by moving ever further into Moscow's former sphere of influence. And we have rarely stopped to consider whether we were overreaching, even as evidence mounted that the patience of a wealthier and more assertive Russia was wearing very thin."

Much of the commentary on the 24-hour-cable cycle seemed to comprehend little of the
Realpolitik of the last 50 years, giving McCain brownie points on his neocon rhetoric. But do Americans really want to be pushed back to a cold war-type confrontation with the Russians? And if we were going to send troops, who would they be? Cub scouts from Cleveland? Everybody else is tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Europeans, wiser than we are, have not been gung ho about inviting all of the spin-offs of the old Soviet Union into NATO. Baiting the bear in this way is just plain dumb, they think.

We can strike deals with Russia as we have with China, pushing our human rights and democracy agendas as we go. We can use carrots and sticks. But further isolating and demonizing Russia, as McCain would have us do, makes for good soundbites and fodder for the cable chatterers, but bad policy. I remember vividly those black-and-white pictures of the kids going up against the tanks in 1956.

Do we really want another betrayal of people who think we are on their side?

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England.)

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