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

"New Cold War" Leaves Voters Cold But Shows Obama's Need

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offered to host Russian offensive missiles as a sort of "counterweight" to the proposed US anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Given how tentative Barack Obama is in discussing geopolitics, his running mate is unusually important. But there's some good news for Obama with regard to John McCain's New Cold War rhetoric. If he and his team can engage successfully with the Vietnam War hero.

It turns out that, according to a new poll, McCain's hot rhetoric in the wake of the Russia-Georgia War -- "We are all Georgians," which of course hasn't done a thing for Georgians -- isn't catching on. But McCain is still seen as the national security/geopolitics maven.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin's plans are working and there are some bad repercussions for US policy coming down the pike. After a visit to Moscow by Syria's president, Russia is getting a naval base in Syria. And sending a task force with an aircraft carrier and subs to the Mediterranean, all the better to bollix up US strategy in the Middle East.

And Kazakhstan, which is a major oil power not to be confused with the goofball land depicted in Borat, appears to be deciding to go with Russian pipelines for its product rather than a transnational project.

The New Cold War, much talked up on the far right, is a flop so far with American voters. While the polls all show John McCain to be the pick of most when it comes to national security issues, his not-so-new geopolitical issue isn't flying. I say not-so-new because McCain has long been perhaps the most anti-Russian of major American politicians. Even as he was giving a rather moderate and balanced major foreign policy address at Town Hall Los Angeles this past, spring, he was calling for the ouster of Russia from the G-8 group of eight advanced industrial nations. Which was never going to happen then, and is hardly likelier now, even in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Georgia. An invasion given its pretext by the boneheaded decision for Georgia to attack the capital of breakaway republic South Ossetia.

In any event, it turns out that we are not all Georgians.

Last week, McCain, a friend of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the American-educated lawyer who employed McCain's chief foreign policy advisor as his Washington lobbyist, memorably declared: "We are all Georgians now."

Well, as Borat might say, not so much.

A new Rasmussen poll shows that John McCain's heated rhetoric on the Russia-Georgia War is not inspiring American intervention there. A whopping 59% of American voters do not want US troops sent to Georgia as peacekeepers. Only 22% favor that move.

Further, as the poll's owner, Republican Scott Rasmussen, puts it: "Despite the numerous Cold War references that have been made publicly in the past week, Americans still overwhelmingly do not regard Russia as an enemy. Fifteen percent (15%) say Russia is an enemy of the United States; 5% say it is an ally, and 76% rate the relationship as somewhere in between.

"A plurality of voters (48%) continue to believe that Republican presidential candidate John McCain is better able to deal with Russia, but 40% think Democrat Barack Obama is the more capable. Last week, 51% rated McCain as the best equipped to handle the crisis in Georgia, compared to 36% who believed that of Obama."

Meanwhile, Russia is according to several reports dispatching a naval task force to the Middle East, including an aircraft carrier, its guided missile cruiser flagship named for the Russian capital, and, rather ominously, several submarines.

The Admiral Kuznetsov, a Russian aircraft carrier, is to head from Murmansk to Syria along with a task force that includes the guided missile cruiser Moskva, recently seen in the Black Sea during the Russian war with Georgia.

And Syrian President Assad just made a two-day visit to Moscow. During which he sought more advanced anti-aircraft weapons systems and offensive missiles from Moscow and reportedly made an unconditional offer of a Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus.

The US gets its long-negotiated future missile shield program in Poland. Poland being anxious to close the long-in-the-works deal so long as the US sets up a military garrison there, making it harder for Russia to attack. Russia gets a here-and-now naval presence in the Middle East.

Tit for tat. Or something like that.

If you're wondering, perhaps, why Russia is not coming under intense criticism from Western Europe and the rest of the vaunted NATO military alliance, think of energy. Russia is its leading supplier of natural gas, oil, and uranium.

And that power position may be increasing in the wake of the Georgian war.

Kazakhstan, one of the world's leading oil nations, situated in the formerly Soviet Central Asia, is reportedly moving away from a transnational pipeline project to the alternative of the Russian umbrella. "Changing the export route is in our agenda now," a high-ranking Kazakh official is quoted as saying yesterday.

Clearly, these matters go far beyond simplistic rhetoric.

Obama, for all his gifts, has not shown the facility or confidence to discuss these matters, as I discussed yesterday on New West Notes.

Obama's been letting John McCain have pretty much a free ride on geopolitics. Even though the geopolitics McCain is supporting now is awfully questionable.

Some numbskull gave Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili the greenlight to launch an offensive against South Ossetia. Which provided Russia with an eagerly sought pretext to shatter the Georgian military and tell the rest of the world that it's bad and it's back.

In the short run, this works for McCain, because he's the pithy war hero. But it doesn't have to. If Obama has the right running mate, he or she can explain, in a hardheaded realist way, how bad this can be for America.

It's actually not that hard to do. If you understand the issues, how they relate with one another, and are not shy about being cogently critical.

Obama isn't all that comfortable on the attack. Though I happen to believe he is far more of a Chicago-style gut fighter than he likes to let on. If he's going to win, he needs to unleash a running mate who will get up in John McCain's grill on what are supposed to be his issues.