09/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain and Russia

The latest campaign twister from John McCain is that he is not questioning Barack Obama's patriotism, only his judgment. But what kind of judgment has McCain been exercising the past several months by calling for the ouster of Russia from the G-8, the group of economic powers that is essential to global stability? Not only is he echoing the language of the Cold War hawks who want to exclude Russia from the World Trade Organization and to abolish the NATO-Russia Council, he wants to re-examine the entire range of U.S.-Russian relations. Conciliation does not seem to be a word in McCain's vocabulary.

These, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in the New York Times this week, "are empty threats." The former president of the Soviet Union said, "for some time now, Russians have been wondering: If our opinion counts for nothing in those institutions, do we really need them? Just to sit at the nicely set dinner table and listen to lectures?"

If the original intent of the post Cold War era was to bring the former Communist superpower into the family of nations, then was it the war in Georgia that truly turned around George Bush? How could he have been so mistaken after his first meeting with the Russian leader when he declared that "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul. I knew that President Putin was a man with whom I could work?"

McCain did not jump to any such conclusions. He rendered a hard line proposal, first in last November's issue of Foreign Affairs and again on March 26 in a speech before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. He was all for expelling the Russians from previously agreed upon understandings. In retrospect, given what has transpired in the past two weeks in Georgia, you would have thought that the serious candidate for president might have been exceedingly cautious when he discussed the delicate nature of U.S. relations with Russia. But not so.

As David Remnick wrote in the August 25th issue of the New Yorker, Putin is nowhere near as naïve. "Putin," he said, is demonstrating that he is willing to use force; that he is unwilling to let Georgia and the Ukraine enter NATO without exacting a severe price; and that he views the United States as hypocritical, overextended, distracted and reluctant to make good on its protective assurances to the likes of Georgia."

The New Yorker editor in chief was a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post at the end of the Cold War and since then has written several thoughtful essays about Putin's Russia. In his latest article, he describes some of the neo-Conservatives' comparisons between the events in Georgia and the past in the Europe of the 1930s, or the Soviet invasions of Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968 as "cartoonish rhetoric."

I agree. Having been the CBS News Moscow correspondent in the d'etente years of U.S.-Soviet relations, I remember how fragile that period was when the Kremlin's paranoia about U.S. involvement in the Middle East war of 1973 evoked images of a return to the worst years of the Cold War.

The chief danger now is miscalculation; of not being taken seriously It reminds me of the days when I was a China watcher in Asia and Mao Zedong's propagandists infuriated Washington by referring to the United States as "a paper tiger." In other words, Washington could threaten Beijing all it wanted, but our threats would not to be taken seriously.

Months ago, Washington not only ignored Moscow's concern over the U.S.-inspired expansion of NATO that included three nations bordering Russia. It also has been declaring its intention to add the Ukraine and Georgia to that alliance as well. Then, on Wednesday, despite the rising regional tensions, over the war in Georgia, the U.S. not only ignored the Russians' displeasure over signing of a missile defense treaty with Poland. It called for the United States to build ten interceptor missiles that, according to the Los Angeles Times "are intended to shoot down long-range missiles from nations such as Iran."

In addition, the Poles would be given a Patriot missile battery that, the Times reported, to be staffed by the U.S. Army as protection against short-range missiles and aircraft.

Presuming the Iranians had such missiles, and no one has offered any evidence that they have, why would they fire them at Poland, of all countries? The Bush Administration's cockamamie rationale has the ring of a poor Polish joke. Not only that. It betrays a total ignorance of history; of Russian concerns about its own borders which were used by Nazi Germany to invade the U.S.S.R. in 1941 and trigger the Second World War that led to the deaths of 27 million of its citizens.

The de-stabilizing prospect of the present crisis raises troubling questions: To what extent does Moscow take Washington's pretensions of power seriously anymore? After nearly eight years, the Bush Administration is still bogged down in a protracted war in Iraq. It has been lured into an expanding commitment in Afghanistan. Its relationship with Pakistan has been weakened by the departure of yet another military strongman as its leader. Moreover, Bush's constant threats to do something about Iran and its unpredictable president seem hollow at best. If all of that was not enough to weaken the present or incoming American president, the domestic problems facing the United States are too numerous to contemplate.

Russia is a far different country than the one that existed before Putin manipulated his way to the top in Moscow. From the little I could see in a two week visit, it would be risky to conclude that the Russia Washington is dealing with today is far different than the weakened state that existed at the end of the Cold War.

Putin's experience and view of the world is by its very nature conspiratorial. He and many of the advisors around him are creatures of the KGB. Given the threatening language of Bush, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and who knows what Dick Cheney is mumbling about these days, it is only possible to wonder what must be going through Putin's mind as the United States faces a presidential election in November. Will he be as blind to Russia's interests as George Bush has been in recent weeks? Or has the Russian prime minister already concluded that a Republican victory would mean that he will have to deal with John McCain who already has spoken the language of a Cold War warrior?

What makes the present situation so dangerous is the manner in which much of the press and the idiot class of cable commentators fell for the most extreme interpretations of the Georgia crisis by the President and his shoot-from-her- hip Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. You would have thought we were on the brink once more of another Cold War or worse.

It took almost two weeks for common sense to surface, the latest example being a front page news analysis by Peter Baker in today's New York Times. Baker and his wife were bureau chiefs of the Washington Post's Moscow bureau from 2001-2004. Together, they wrote a compelling book about Putin's Russia entitled Kremlin Rising that I read during my recent visit there.

In today's article, Baker quotes a number of sober-minded experts on Russia who cite the problems an isolated Kremlin could cause the United States if the cons and neo-cons got their way. Aside from shipping far more weapons to potential troublemakers like Syria, Iran and Venezuela, Baker quotes this list of headaches from policy makers and specialists in Washington: "a freeze on counter-terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation cooperation, manipulation of oil and natural gas supplies, pressure against U.S. military bases in Central Asia and the collapse of efforts to extend cold war arms control treaties."

For a man who touts his own horn about expertise in national security matters, John McCain ought to tell us how he would deal with these consequences if he was to be elected President of the United States. His answers might be reason for a great debate in the months before the November election.