Over the weekend, Georgia rather than Iraq seemed set to become the dominant foreign policy issue of the 2008 election. The McCain camp sounded as if they were hoping so. On the surface, they had a point. McCain's proposal to eject Russia from the Group of 8 (G-8) looked wild and reckless six months ago. Today, it looks a lot more sensible. But a closer analysis of recent events yields a very different conclusion.
If Russia had continued its military assault all the way to Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and overthrown the democratically elected government, as many feared a couple of days ago, this crisis would indeed have overshadowed almost everything else on the foreign policy agenda. A great power invading and occupying a neighbor over the objections of the rest of the civilized world would have been both an outrage and a world-historical event.
Instead, despite the protestations of right-wing commentators here at home, this crisis is likely to simmer down and before too long it will be just another item on the international agenda. All of this assumes that the French-led effort to establish a cease-fire holds and diplomacy starts to focus on the location of Russian and Georgian forces and possibly a new peacekeeping force established on the disputed territory of South Ossetia.
But there are still important questions that remain to be debated. Did the Bush administration mislead the Georgian government into thinking support for membership in NATO meant military support in a crisis? What should U.S. policy be toward Russia? And will John McCain be able to score political points out of this tragedy?
Complete answers to these questions may take months. But some conclusions can already be drawn. First and foremost, Georgia has become yet another example of stunning incompetence by the Bush administration. Let's remember it was Chancellor Merkel of Germany who became the power broker when leaders at the NATO summit debated the subject of Georgia this spring. The United States, which has traditionally led NATO on such subjects, failed to push through a so-called Membership Action Plan for Georgia. That failure, as much as anything, gave Moscow a crucial signal that the West could not muster a serious response should it crack down on its troublesome neighbor. And while we don't know exactly what was said by Washington to Georgia's President Saakashvilli, clearly he was not deterred from acting.
Whoever was responsible for the initial provocation, we can also conclude that Russia should pay a heavy price for its actions. The Russian government desperately wants the West to treat it as an important and respected great power. We can and should withhold that treatment. No diplomatic business as usual. And above all, we should reject as not worthy of consideration Russia's proposal last month for a new European security architecture.
In general, treat Russia like China, an important power whose policies and practices merit regular criticism. That doesn't mean cutting off relations. It just means realpolitick. Certainly, there should no more cozy Bush-Putin-soulmate treatment handed out by the next President. Some worry that a tougher policy would jeopardize cooperation from Russia on key issues like Iran's nuclear aspirations. But the truth is Russia is joining the international community in putting sanctions on Iran not as a favor to the United States. It doesn't want to see an Iranian nuclear bomb any more than we do.
As for the politics here at home, McCain may say his policy shows prescience. But what it really shows is petulance. John McCain, despite all his claims of unique experience, is just the wrong man to lead American foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Kicking Russia out of the G-8 a year ago wouldn't have made things better. It would have just caused a bigger split with our European allies. The same goes for his argument that we should have demanded that NATO give greater support for Georgia. We learned in recent weeks that when Europe and America are united, Russian opposition is neutered. On missile defense, NATO has come together and Russia's complaints have quieted. It was the split in NATO over Georgia, a split that a McCain approach would have widened, that gave Russia reason to believe the West would acquiesce in its military aggression.
Which brings us back to the politics of war. In the run-up to the Iraq debacle, John McCain was as outrageous as Donald Rumsfeld in denouncing our European allies for not supporting an early invasion. He has not been a consensus-builder in NATO. He has been a fiery defender of the neo-conservative line.
The next President must be someone who can remain calm in a crisis, not jump to conclusions, and build a consensus with our friends and allies. That is how America's interests will be best defended and promoted in the twenty-first century. McCain's record of discord with our European allies and his shoot from the hip approach on Russia demonstrate that if the phone rings at three a.m. he'll be giving the wrong answers.
James P. Rubin is now an adjunct Professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He was Assistant Secretary of State and Chief Spokesman of the State Department during the Clinton Administration.