Column: Washington remains hobbled by Iraq

Here is my column for Monday's FT:

So far, reaction in the US to Russia's invasion of Georgia has been all Vladimir Putin could have wished. Exhausted in every way by its experience in Iraq (a failure not much mitigated by recent progress there), its authority and sense of purpose quite depleted, the US looked slower and less decisive than Europe in its initial response, and that is saying something.

It took repeated prodding from presidential contender John McCain to draw President George W. Bush's attention from the Beijing Olympics to the fact that Russian forces were overrunning the territory of a US ally. Then, as the White House slowly geared up its rhetoric, dispatched the secretary of state to Tbilisi, and began talking vaguely of repercussions, both the administration and the goading Mr McCain were accused of war-mongering hysteria by liberal commentators and even by some conservatives.

It is easy to account for this lassitude and lack of self-confidence. The US feels anything but strong these days. Iraq has strained its armed forces to such a point that it cannot commit adequate resources even to its struggle to stabilise Afghanistan, which would otherwise be an immediate and high priority. Aside from the human cost of the Iraq mission, Americans are also preoccupied with its enormous fiscal burden. Just last week, Barack Obama's campaign again underlined how much it is counting on savings from a withdrawal from Iraq to pay for expanded domestic spending. The country has a new set of priorities.

Even more telling, though, is the erosion of its moral assurance and sense of purpose in the world. The instant reaction of many of the administration's critics was to say: "We invaded Iraq without justification. We have no standing to object if Russia does the same to Georgia." Andrew Sullivan, a prominent conservative blogger and a one-time supporter of the Iraq war, wrote: "Maybe we should start complaining when as many Georgians have perished as Iraqis - and when Putin throws thousands of innocent Georgians into torture chambers."

Differences between the two cases - Georgia is a democracy not a totalitarian tyranny, and is a state in good standing with the world not a proven aggressor and serial violator of United Nations resolutions - received little attention. The fact that Georgia is also a US ally was also overlooked. It was all the same thing. In fact, when you thought about it, Russia's case for acting as it did was stronger than the US rationale for attacking Iraq: Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's leader, is erratic and sort of asked for it, and his country is right on Russia's doorstep, inside its legitimate sphere of influence.

Certainly, if the US is to recover its ability to make moral distinctions and rational calculations of self-interest, it will need to shed this administration. That is part of what it will take to get over Iraq - but will it be enough? It was disappointing, though unsurprising, that the McCain and Obama campaigns both saw Georgia through the prism of electoral politics, rather than seeking to unite on the issue. Mr McCain was agitated and militant - alarmingly so, it must be said. Mr Obama was circumspect, called for restraint on both sides and consultation with allies, and in effect said nothing. Mr McCain's campaign underlined his toughness and experience; Mr Obama's emphasised their candidate's calmness and refusal to shoot from the hip.

An approach that combines these stereotypical attitudes is needed. If it is in Mr Putin's mind to use force and intimidation to reconstitute the Soviet Union in the form of a new Russian empire - as it might be - then the US and its friends must overcome post-Iraq equivocation and recognise this as both morally outrageous and as a serious challenge to their interests. Mr Putin would need to be firmly resisted, not with empty overheated threats, but with measured concrete steps.

Since coming to power, Mr Putin has sought and in large measure been granted partnership with the west. Europe and the US have worked on the assumption that Russia wanted to become a normal country. That was questionable even before Georgia. At the moment it looks absurd. Russia wants it both ways. It wants the benefits of international partnership - in the World Trade Organisation, the Group of Eight and other forums - while being free to reassert itself over the former Soviet Union. Mr Putin needs to be told that he cannot have it both ways. If Russia keeps forces in Georgia proper, at a minimum that should veto WTO membership and future invitations to G7 conclaves. The message to Mr Putin should be that he is sincerely wanted as a partner because the benefits assuredly flow in both directions, but not at any price.

Aside from underlining the extent to which Iraq has weakened the US, spiritually and materially, the invasion of Georgia drove home something else as well: the fact that there is still no substitute for American leadership. Europe's diplomatic mission was commendably prompt, but completely ineffective. The European Union is deeply divided over Russia. Its newer members from the former Soviet empire are intent on resisting any renewed Russian ambitions to intimidate them. Germany and others are fearful of offending Mr Putin - for instance, by speeding the accession of Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states into Nato and the EU. The US has to set the course in dealing with Russia. Europe ought to, but cannot and will not.

Exercising such leadership means getting over Iraq. Sadly for citizens of the former Soviet republics and their neighbours in central Europe, that is going to take a while.