His critics ought to give George W. a little credit. He famously looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and saw a soul. That's more than anybody else has ever found there.
We all learn lessons. Harry S. Truman, everybody's favorite no-nonsense president, met Stalin for the first time and thought he could "do business" with him. The Cold War followed soon afterward. Tyrants charm the unwary.
Mr. Putin, photographed with George W. at the Olympics, looked even more sour and dour than usual, his cold viper's eyes hooded and brooding, with the promise of malice and malevolence. George W. wasn't smiling, either. They clearly weren't talking about the remarkable performance of the American swimmers. George W. confided later that he was "firm with Vladimir Putin," and told him that the Russian invasion of Georgia "is unacceptable." This followed Dick Cheney's warning that the aggression "must not go unanswered."
Such talk often sounds tougher than it really is. Given the givens, the tough talk is probably all the answer Mr. Putin's regime should fear. President George H.W. Bush obviously meant it in that different time and place when he told Saddam Hussein that his seizure of Kuwait "will not stand." Georgia is an ally of the West, having sent 2,000 soldiers to Iraq, but nobody expects to see American tanks and bombers answer Russian tanks and bombers to settle a family feud. George W. is looking to exit stage right and doesn't have the bombers and tanks available to answer the Russians, even if he wanted to, and Vladimir Putin knows it. The "strong letter of protest" is about all the old KGB hand has to fear.
Brutal as it is, the Russian invasion didn't surprise the observant. The message to the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was clear enough: Forget any idea of taking Georgia into NATO. The Russians had been massing hundreds of tanks and light armor on the border for months, waiting for the moment. Now George W. is busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran is unfinished business. Flush with oil riches and buoyed on dreams of restoring Soviet glory, with the prospect of an inexperienced peacenik president at the threshold of the White House, Mr. Putin found his moment.
Suddenly the front pages of American newspapers blossomed with headlines that might have been retrieved from the files of 1864: Georgia invaded by foreign soldiers burning its cities and looting its farms, as if the ghost of Father Abraham had emerged from the crypt to dispatch Sherman and his firebugs once more. The irony was compounded over the weekend when the Georgian president moved his Web site to an Internet server in Atlanta after a server in Tbilisi, the other Georgian capital, was trashed by Mr. Putin's government.
The Russians appeared yesterday to have moved past a mere warning to forget joining NATO. With the capture of the city of Gori in central Georgia, the Russians threatened the capital of Tbilisi. Mr. Putin's larger goal of returning Georgia to its subservient role as a satellite "republic" was now within his reach.
"Basically, it's been Chechnya all over again," says George H. Wittman, chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy, writing in the American Spectator, "and that is exactly the type of indiscriminate warfare at which the Russian army is so adept. Their job is not so much a matter of defeating an opposing army as it is inflicting maximum destruction on all who oppose them, civilian and military."
It was deja vu all over again. "The Russians will be here tomorrow," a villager in Tkviav tells a correspondent for the London Times. "They want to show us and the world how powerful they are. Tomorrow it will be Ukraine and nobody in the West is doing anything to stop them." A farmer tells another correspondent: "Why won't America and NATO help us? If they won't help us, why did we help them in Iraq?"
If not the Americans, who? America the Beautiful has been transformed into America the Bully, if you listen to the likes of Barack Obama and the glassy-eyed cult crying for mindless "change." But not if you listen to the pleading voices of the brutalized with no one else to turn to. The pitiful cries for help - "Why won't America help us?" - would break a banker's heart.