The Georgia Crisis: Does Obama ‘Get’ It?

Published 3:43 pm Thursday, August 14, 2008

When it’s “change” you’re merchandising, the easy phrases flow easily enough. Walls between people “cannot stand.” With “improbable hope,” we prepare to “to remake the world once again” — “a world that stands as one.” “This is our moment, this is our time,” proclaimed Barack Obama, when speaking in Berlin.

It was days ago — an eternity in the affairs of a world that declines to stand still for even a minute, perpetually upending comfortable assumptions about the Needs of Now. Russian armed forces were not then marching through Georgia — or bombing the homes and shops of a small neighbor closely linked to the country Barack Obama hopes to lead as president.

“Change” came to Georgia with a bang: a huge, destructive series of bangs that threatens the very existence of a cordial American ally.

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Americans may be awaking to a new reality about presidential politics: To wit, you want a leader who recognizes danger the instant he sees it, who knows, too, the perils inherent in papering over cracks in facades.

I wouldn’t for a second assert that Obama isn’t such a leader. He might be. On the other hand, he might not. What we chiefly know of Obama, despite the cheerful and constant companionship to which he has treated us, is that he’s big on “change” and “hope.” Is he big on resolve and determination, not to mention intuitive grasp of changed circumstances? It’s harder to say — a consideration that could bulk large in the intuition that American voters bring to the polls.

Here’s the record when it comes to Georgia. Obama, on learning of the Soviet invasion, played it cool. It was “important … for all sides to show restraint.” McCain, by contrast, demanded that Russia “immediately and unconditionally” pull its forces out of Georgia.

As Georgia’s plight worsened, McCain called “Russian aggression … both a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance” to us. He called for “high-level” diplomacy among European allies and said the United States should provide Georgia economic and humanitarian aid. Obama, for his part, urged that Russia “immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from Georgian territory” — the original McCain position.

On Georgia, Obama is possibly getting there. It took him a while, nonetheless, to figure out where “there” was. McCain, war veteran and foreign policy specialist as he is, knows instinctively that aggressors aren’t perturbed by pleas to behave.

McCain further understood the stakes in the affair. You let the bad guys take out a friend of yours and soon your other friends start wearing nervous looks. What next? In a fight, could they count on America? How much could they count on America? Should they start to think about making terms with potential adversaries?

John McCain knows, sadly, that even if American troops weren’t up to their eyebrows in Iraq, we couldn’t take on the Russians in their backyard — a sort of Crimean War replay. He knows something just as important, or so one infers from listening to him. He knows that not to give this Caucasian cause our very best shot is to invite more Soviet behavior of the kind on display in Georgia right now and, ultimately, to make life tougher for all countries wedded to democracy.

Does Obama understand this unquestionable truth? Given his proximity to the White House, one hopes so. Oh, how one hopes! One just can’t know what this untried Harvard lawyer — the budding president we have only lately come to know at all — believes and understands deep down. Nor have we any real intuition concerning what he can do when he gets a head of steam up. If he does get a head of steam up.

The presidential race, one senses, could be shifting. Will it continue to center on “change”? Or is a new political coloration coming in — the sense that life in the 21st century has its own menaces and dangers, not all of them susceptible to rich oratory, or even hugs.

(William Murchison is a senior fellow of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. To find out more about William Murchison and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at