The speed with which Senator McCain seized the leadership in the first foreign policy crisis of the presidential campaign may not be surprising. Mr. McCain after all, backed the surge strategy in Iraq, while Senator Obama and many others were opposing it. But his emergence on the Georgia crisis is no less impressive. When Russia took advantage of the Olympics to launch an operation aimed at ousting the democratically elected government in a neighboring country that is an aspiring NATO member, Mr. Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, initially called on both sides to exercise restraint. Mr. McCain saw it immediately for what it was, Russian aggression.
President Bush underscored the stakes in his Rose Garden remarks yesterday, saying it appeared an effort was underway to depose Georgia's democratically elected government. "Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Mr. Bush said.
In the conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia, we have no dog in the fight. Nor in the fight between Abkhazia and Georgia. But in the fight between Georgia and Moscow, American sympathies and interests lie with the former Soviet satellite now headed by a democratically elected government that has sought to throw in with the West.
Some might argue that America's interests lie with letting Moscow do what it wants, as it is a stronger power than Georgia. But if America is just going to abandon a friendly nation that sent troops to fight in Iraq — well, then American friendship will come to be devalued around the world, which will have its own great cost to America's interests.
Mr. McCain grasped as much in his statement yesterday, saying, "Russia is using violence against Georgia, in part, to intimidate other neighbors such as Ukraine for choosing to associate with the West and adhering to Western political and economic values. As such, the fate of Georgia should be of grave concern to Americans and all people who welcomed the end of a divided of Europe, and the independence of former Soviet republics."
Added Mr. McCain: "The international response to this crisis will determine how Russia manages its relationships with other neighbors. We have other important strategic interests at stake in Georgia, especially the continued flow of oil through the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which Russia attempted to bomb in recent days; the operation of a critical communication and trade route from Georgia through Azerbaijan and Central Asia; and the integrity and influence of NATO, whose members reaffirmed last April the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Georgia."
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, framed the issue not as one of values but as one of sovereignty. "The UN must stand up for the sovereignty of its members, and peace in the world," he said, an argument that just as easily might have been used against, say, the liberation of Iraq, or might be used in the future against an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. No one knows what conflicts the four years between 2008 and 2012 will bring, what will be the South Ossetia of 2010, the obscure region that suddenly becomes the focal point of a global crisis. But by the evidence so far Mr. McCain is more ready for the challenge than is Mr. Obama.