President Bush's assurance back in 2001 that he looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and liked what he saw was the international equivalent of his "heckuva job" boosterism of Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The two statements will compete for the dishonor of the most notoriously misbegotten he uttered as president. Bush's endorsement of Putin was partly a matter of calculation; when he says glowing things about foreign leaders in public, he tells those leaders in private how he expects them to deliver. But with Putin, Bush seemed as if he were playing Ned Flanders to Putin's Tony Soprano.
John McCain's assessment stands up much better: When he looked at Putin, "he saw three letters: a K, a G and a B." Putin's neo-Soviet state has launched a nakedly illegal invasion of neighboring Georgia that is reminiscent of the Winter War against Finland at the outset of World War II. The Russian press is pumping out absurd lies about Georgian acts of genocide, even as the Russian military indiscriminately bombs and shells Georgian cities. Edward Gibbon's description of the Inquisition comes to mind nonsense defended by cruelty.
The Bush administration made twin mistakes with Russia. It overpersonalized relations, with Bush hoping to coax out Putin's better side, and tiptoed around Moscow in the hopes that gentle treatment would encourage it to act responsibly. The irony is that Barack Obama with his commitment to personal diplomacy and a gentler U.S. footprint around the world wants to make those two tendencies centerpieces of his foreign policy.
The Bush and Obama statements in the immediate wake of the crisis could have been issued by a joint campaign. Bush's spokeswoman urged "all parties," both Georgians and Russians, "to de-escalate the tension and avoid conflict." Obama declared that "now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint." In their implied moral equivalence, these reactions were a little like urging the Kuwaitis to de-escalate with Saddam's Iraq in August 1990.
Yes, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili allowed himself to be baited into military action in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. But let's be clear who was doing the baiting and why. Russia had supported South Ossetian forces attacking Georgian villages and troops in order to detach the province slowly from Georgia or provoke a military confrontation that Georgia could never win. Mission accomplished.
The larger strategic goal is to keep the pro-Western independent states on Russia's border in turmoil. As George Kennan said, on its borders Russia can have only vassals or enemies. Russia's neighbors have an incentive to be cleareyed about this, which is why the presidents of the Baltic States and Poland all condemned "meaningless statements equating the victims with the victimizers."
McCain's proposal from a few months ago to boot Russia from the G-8 has gone from seeming needlessly provocative to practically prescient. Together with the surge in Iraq, the Georgian crisis is the second strategic matter on which everyone else has followed the senator's lead. McCain warned of Russian designs on its "near-abroad" when Boris Yeltsin was still in power, and advocated the enlargement of NATO into Eastern Europe as a way to cement those countries into the West and check Russian adventurism years before the Clinton administration adopted it as policy.
McCain's judgment benefits from years of marinating in national-security issues and traveling and getting to know the key players; from a hatred of tinpot dictators and bloody thugs that guides his moral compass; and from a flinty realism (verging at times on fatalism) that is resistant to illusions about personalities, or the inevitable direction of History, or the nature of the world.
Putin launched his assault on Georgia on the same day the Olympics opened with the theme of "One World, One Dream." Putin put paid to that within hours with steel and blood. All you need to know about his soul is the testimony of the rocket launchers and T-72 tanks still flowing into Georgia.