McCain And Georgia


It has been a fascinating few days watching John McCain come alive. The difference between his talking about, say, energy policy or the economy, compared with the chance to have a visceral military conflict with Russia is a valuable glimpse into what makes him tick. It isn't just his comfort with military force. It's classic good McCain too. The pattern throughout his career has always been seeking out the supremely moral position in a losing conflict. And here comes Georgia, plucky little Georgia, doomed throughout history to be perched between Russia and the Black Sea, with a newly elected McCain-like figure, Mikheil Saakashvili, thumbing his nose at the biggest bully on the block. What's not for McCain to love? The hushed, Churchillian speeches and press conferences, the thrill of breaking war news, the existence of an enemy, an ancient, cold-blooded enemy against which to pivot.  It's all a wet dream for the Arizona senator.

No one should doubt that McCain's heart is in the right place. McCain long championed the persecuted people of Iraq; and he came to the defense of the beleaguered Bosnians. He is passionate about Burma and Darfur. You name a lost cause and he will rally to it. And no position fit him better than the role of lone crusader for the surge in Iraq in 2006, a military exercise that in his mind would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and punish enemies as disparate as Saddam Hussein and Don Rumsfeld.

His position on Georgia makes much more sense if you see it in this context.

In his own narrative, he is always the one man who kept the faith while so many lost theirs. Only McCain had the courage to champion Petraeus; only McCain was in intimate contact with Saakashvili before most others had even heard of him; only McCain can rescue Iraq; only McCain will defeat Iran and Russia and China, because only McCain has the moral clarity to see them as the evil they are, and only McCain has the balls to defend the weak and the defenseless (unless, of course, the CIA has them in a locked, dark cell).

That the world and America might need other virtues in the current global context does not occur to him. That these often admirably intentioned crusades might require more prudential reasoning, restrained caution and delicate diplomacy is not in his play-book. What Americans have to decide is whether, after the last seven years, this kind of with-us-or-against-us crusade against enemies near and far is the right approach to the current crisis. or whether it is part of the reason we are already in so deep.

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty.)