Russia's swift invasion of Georgia appears to have met its goals: humiliating a neighbor that deigned to escape its sphere of influence, and proving that the Bear still has very sharp claws. While it is not yet clear that all military operations have ceased (Georgia reported that bombings continue), the past five days have been a test case for the limits of post-Iraq U.S. power and the nimbleness of American policy. The results are not encouraging for Washington: the incursion of Russian troops beyond the secessionist province of South Ossetia represents a direct challenge by Moscow to the U.S., the European Union and NATO, reviving the old confrontation between the former Cold War adversaries.
If the stakes are high, you wouldn't have known it from Washington's early reaction. President George W. Bush made cautious statements of condemnation over the weekend at the Olympic Games in Beijing, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice remained on vacation, oddly absent from public view for an issue she had made her career on. At the same time, the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain have seen the crisis largely as an occasion for political sniping, as they are perhaps more eager to gain an edge in the race for the White House than seek solutions.
The Administration struggled to shape a response to the crisis from the beginning. A senior State Department official told TIME that on Aug. 7 he personally warned the Georgian Foreign Minister "not to get into a military tangle" with the Russians. "The Russians are looking for an excuse to kill Georgians," the official says he told the minister reiterating a similar message the official says he delivered in May, during a prior uptick in tensions. But the warning came too late: Georgia's attack in South Ossetia, in response to provocative attacks by pro-Moscow separatists, began Aug. 6; by the time of the State Department official's warning a day later, Russia's forces were already on the move.
After the Russians invaded on Aug. 8, President Bush spoke with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the Olympics in Beijing. Bush made a cautious statement urging a return to the positions held before the recent fighting erupted, but he made no clear statement on the consequences of a Russian escalation. Although Rice remained on vacation, the State Department says she has made some 90 phone calls in the past three days to Russian, Georgian, European and American officials in apparent pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
But even members of Republican McCain's campaign were quietly critical of her diplomacy-by-telephone approach to the conflict. McCain called for Rice to convene an in-person meeting of the G-7 industrialized nations, and a senior campaign official asserted, "Personal diplomacy would reflect a higher priority" for the crisis from the Administration.
The invasion sent the foreign policy teams of both McCain and Obama into feverish activity. Both candidates made supportive calls to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and received one-on-one telephone briefings from Rice. Meanwhile, both camps issued press releases trying to out-tough each other on what the proper response to the Kremlin should be. And both sides are questioning each other's judgment and response.
The crisis has played mostly to McCain's advantage. McCain and his advisers have long pushed for the U.S. to respond more aggressively to Putin's threats against pro-Western neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine by kicking it out of the G-8 and limiting its contact with NATO. The campaign wasted no time calling this position "prescient," and it called for a more thorough application of diplomatic pressure than did either the Administration or the Obama campaign including an emergency session of the NATO council to consider a peacekeeping force, to reassess relations with Russia and to reconsider offering a membership plan to Georgia.
Obama's campaign made two early missteps. First, in its initial statement, it called for restraint from both Russia and Georgia. "Generally, when a country is being invaded, you don't call on it to show restraint," a senior McCain foreign policy adviser responded. (The adviser declined to be identified, aware that the criticism could also apply to the Administration, which called for restraint as well.) Then Obama's campaign released a statement questioning McCain's objectivity in the crisis, since a top McCain aide, Randy Scheunemann, had lobbied for the Georgians. When the Kremlin's own lobbyists made the same point, McCain's campaign fired back. "The reaction of the Obama campaign to this crisis, so at odds with our democratic allies and yet so bizarrely in sync with Moscow, doesn't merely raise questions about Senator Obama's judgment it answers them," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement Saturday.
Obama adviser Michael McFaul, a hawkish Democrat, says the Illinois Senator has been calling for more action on South Ossetia for months but disagrees with some of McCain's more aggressive approaches. "Would kicking Russia out of the G-8 have stopped this invasion?" McFaul says. "I don't see how those two are related. That is the test of leadership: are you proposing things that can advance American interests?" By Monday, Obama issued his toughest statement yet, saying the U.S. should rally the international community to "condemn [Russia's] aggression, to call for an immediate halt to the violence, and to review multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia including Russia's interest in joining the World Trade Organization."
For his part, Bush stepped up the rhetoric Monday as well, decrying Russia's expanded attacks in the west and center of Georgia and warning Russia against attacking the capital, Tbilisi. "The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on," Bush said in the Rose Garden on Monday. "These actions jeopardize ... Russia's relations with the United States and Europe." Rice showed no signs of emerging from vacation, but she dispatched an envoy to the region.
What neither Bush nor either of the campaigns are saying is that the outcome of the conflict in Georgia is likely to redefine perceptions of American and European power around the world, especially in the strategically important regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia's attack has been met with fairly weak diplomatic warnings, and with no negative consequences in the offing for its adventure, the invasion could mark a return of the military compulsion Moscow practiced in the Soviet era. There is no greater incentive than success.