The McCain campaign saw the Russian invasion of Georgia as an opportunity to exploit their candidate’s strong suit, foreign policy, with what amounted to a real-time version of Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad. McCain supporter Sen. Lindsay Graham even borrowed the exact phrasing from Clinton’s earlier attempts to paint Barack Obama as too wet behind the ears to be president, saying, “You got a guy [McCain] who is ready to be president on Day One who understands the world for what it is.”
Last weekend’s events in the Caucuses, however, showed how little most Americans, including the incumbent president, appreciate the world “for what it is.” President Bush said that the invasion of a sovereign nation without direct provocation was the kind of thing that is “unacceptable in the 21st century.” This is an odd claim coming from the man who manipulated the information about Iraq’s WMD to justify invading that country. But, does anyone really think the 21st century will be less violent and more humane? If so, why?
Russia’s invasion of Georgia shows the limits of American military power. We can rant and rave, but we are not going to send troops to fight the Russian aggression. Indeed, when McCain says “We are all Georgians” it is difficult to know what he means. Surely, he is right to condemn the invasion. Surely he is right to point to the real danger of Russian autocracy, no matter how deeply President Bush looks into Vladimir Putin’s soul. But, the Russian aggression – and their indifference to American opinion – showed one reality very clearly: As Mark Silk of Trinity College opined on Colin McEnroe’s Connecticut radio program “Afternoon Drive” on Monday, when faced with a real “tough guy” like Putin, America’s would-be tough guys McCain and Bush don’t look so tough after all.
Indeed, the reason to hope for a more pacific 21st century lies not in the blunderbuss of the GOP but in those institutions of multilateralism that are so often derided by the tough-guys in the GOP. The reason Russia had to pull back was because French President Nicolas Sarkozy pointed out that the West had the power to shut down their involvement in the economic and legal structures that have come to define the 21st century economy. If you are not in the IMF, if the banks who handle your government’s business are under pressure from the West to deny you credit, if you flaunt the legal systems to which your nation belongs and from which it benefits, you will not long be able to undertake the routine machinations of government. Even the notoriously isolated and paranoid regime in North Korea was not immune to pressure from its bankers in Shanghai and Tokyo.
You do not have to be a big fan of the IMF or of the United Nations to recognize that in this globalized world of ours, the carrots and sticks that matter most to most people have little to do with big stick of military force. Look at the headlines this week: Above the fold, the news from Tbilisi shared the spotlight with Michael Phelps’s gold medal run. Vladimir Putin may be more immune to public pressure than John McCain, but most Russians do not want to see their living standards decline so that Mother Russia can annex South Ossetia. And, for all his tough talk, I doubt John McCain’s tough talk will do much to improve his chances with an American electorate that would prefer not to have their Olympics interrupted with saber rattling against the Russians.
Michael Sean Winters