Let's Not Rush into Cold War II

Some robust rhetoric has been used to condemn Russia's brutally effective invasion of Georgia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compared the act to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Senator John McCain said that the war was an attempt to "establish the Russian Empire," while influential columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that President Bush send Vladimir Putin a DVD of Charlie Wilson's War. Max Boot, author of the excellent book War Made New, counseled that we immediately send the Georgians Stinger and Javelin missiles. Strong stuff.

In the earnest desire to help a beleaguered ally and perhaps longing for the good old days of Reagan Doctrine moral clarity, conservatives may be losing sight of something important -- namely America's strategic interests. Moreover, their silence in regard to grave failures by our national security establishment in this crisis is bewildering. The results of the Russo-Georgian war are a debacle. Either our State Department, CIA, and the Pentagon failed to accurately assess a likely Russian reaction to an attempt by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force -- an act that provided Moscow with a pretext to attack Georgia -- or the war caught us completely by surprise. The former possibility is worrisome; the latter is inexcusable.

President Bush should be commended for his very firm but restrained moves to try and end this crisis and in the process salvage Georgia's sovereignty and Mikheil Saakhashvili's position as president of Georgia, both of which were close to being lost, mainly through Saakashvili's own incompetence. Unfortunately, the president does not have much leverage to work with, having been maneuvered into a dispute with Russia at a time and place of Putin's choosing rather than ours -- a game where Putin and Medvedev hold all the good cards and can deal from the bottom of the deck.

Understandably, conservatives are feeling frustrated but the underlying reason for our poor position today is not Putin's malevolent brilliance or even Saakashvili's deficits as a statesman -- which are considerable -- but America's longstanding lack of a strategic policy toward Russia. We have been without sure direction in our relations toward Russia since the critical years of 1991-1993 when we failed to heed the advice of former president Richard Nixon to seize the moment and irrevocably make post-Soviet Russia part of the West.