History disabuses every president of the notion that he has a legacy to leave. What he leaves is a record, sometimes written in fire and blood, and history assigns the legacy.
George W. Bush leaves a record of trying to housebreak the Islamic radicals, to teach them to behave themselves in this world and wait until the next to collect their virgins. Since his critics think such a reclamation project can't be done, if civilization survives, George W. can enjoy the pleasure of proving everybody else wrong.
But presidents, even presidents looking for the exit, are men in a hurry, and they invariably start trying to shape how they'll be measured and remembered in the shade and shadows of the dying light. They don't want to start new arguments or pick new fights. Suddenly the legacy of the peacemaker, even the maker of the cheap peace bought with rhetoric and a promissory note, is tempting.
George W. went off to Beijing as a tourist, and had the bad luck of arriving just as Russia, struggling to be reborn as a Soviet Union without the burden of a discredited economic system, marched into Georgia to loot and lay waste to democratic dreams of live and let live. George W. sat in the stands, entranced like the rest of us by the aquatic magic of Michael Phelps, and pointed with pride, waving an American flag, and viewed with alarm the Russian blitzkrieg racing through the heart of an ally thousands of miles away.
Viewing with alarm, which is always fun, irritates Vladimir Putin but it won't seriously upset anyone in Moscow. The Russians are taking the long view, brushing off ineffectual criticism. They figure to add to their own history, having invaded with impunity before: Poland in 1939, Finland in 1940, the several Baltic states in 1941, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. And of course Georgia, in 1921, 1991 and only last week. Practice can make perfect.
When the Bush administration finally bestirred itself to take the situation seriously, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was sent out to deliver more gruel, this time gruel with a hint of jalapeno. "This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it," she said. "Things have changed." Even this much makes the Europeans of 2008, who quail at the sight of a squadron of butterflies, nervous. The Russians, on the other hand, are taking glee at the restoration of the harsh word games of the Cold War.
The Moscow media, picking up vibes emanating from the blog swamps of the American left, calls the Georgian response to the Russian invasion a plot hatched by Dick Cheney to start a war to elect John McCain. Ranking Russian voices pick up the refrain. Vasily Likhachev, a former Russian ambassador to the European Union, thinks he has Washington's number: "The West - [i.e., the United States] - has spent a lot of time, energy and money to teach Georgia the tricks of the trade ... to make the country look like a democracy. We see through this deceit. We understand that the seditious tactics of the so-called color revolutions are a real threat to international law and the source of global nihilism." (This doesn't quite capture of the flavor of Red China's Cold War rhetoric, with its denunciations of Americans as "poisonous weeds" and "ravenous running dogs," but it could get closer to world class stuff as the melancholy chorus of crickets and katydids signal the waning of summer.)
What the situation needs is a few more "tricks of the trade." When the Soviets blockaded Berlin in 1948, Gen. Lucius Clay sent an appeal to President Truman: "We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent." The Berlin Airlift followed shortly after.
John McCain has suggested several things the West, meaning of course the United States, can do to show American intent, in addition to an airlift to Tbilisi if one is needed, including expelling Russia from the Group of Eight. The West could bar coveted Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, even eliminate the prospect of hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014. Vladimir Putin is carefully calculating Western resolve, as well as measuring the bones of Barack Obama, whose first reaction was the usual moral equivalence of limp liberalism. "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint," he said. He was right on the message from the West.