McCain, Obama and the Caucasus Test

The satirist Ambrose Bierce memorably described war as God’s way of teaching geography. And so when Russian tanks rolled first into the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the weekend and then into Georgia proper, it marked the first time many Americans had heard anything at all about the people, places and politics of this particular corner of the Caucasus.

For now, the conflict between Russia and Georgia, a country with five million fewer residents than the U.S. state of the same name, isn’t likely to play a major, direct role in the race between Barack Obama and John McCain. Few Americans live in the area (and those who do are being evacuated as this is being written), no American troops are on the ground, and there are no significant ethnic or emotional bonds between most U.S. voters and Georgia.

And even though President Bush issued a harsh public rebuke of Russia’s actions on Monday, the prospect of American military involvement in the near future seems remote, given the public’s meager appetite for more military engagement and the practical limits that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have imposed on the U.S. military. (A reality that seems to be a revelation to Georgia’s leaders, who previously sent 2,000 troops to Iraq with the belief that the U.S. would return the favor down the road if need be.)

Still, the heavy news coverage of the fighting, which actually began with an aggressive move by Georgia but has evolved to resemble a full-on Russian invasion, presents opportunities and challenges for both presidential candidates.

Mr. McCain would seem to have the most to gain politically, if only because international crises, even in places that few Americans know of or understand, tend to reinforce voters’ emotional desire for leaders who seem strong and experienced. Recall that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses seemed to boost Mr. McCain – not because of any particular Pakistan-related policy of his, but simply because it reminded the public of how unstable the world is. (Similarly, Democratic entrance polls in Iowa showed Hillary Clinton finishing first among the 45 percent of caucus-goers who said the events in Pakistan had been very important in their decision-making.)

Accordingly, Mr. McCain has presented a response to the Russia-Georgia conflict that is laden with hawkish, black-and-white rhetoric that paints Russia as a force of savage, anti-democratic evil bent on destroying a brave, defenseless democracy. This is partly true – Russia has plainly ignored cease-fire calls from Georgia – but it also ignores one of the root causes of the conflict: Georgia’s attempt to use military force to retake South Ossetia, whose people long ago declared their independence from Georgia and who want nothing to do with the country. In other corners of the world – like Kosovo – Mr. McCain has been far more sympathetic to such sentiments.

But Mr. McCain’s posture is nonetheless smart politics, because the specifics of the conflict are – and will remain – a mystery to most U.S. voters. American public opinion will favor Georgia in the conflict, simply because lingering Cold War animosity and a decade’s worth of headlines about Vladimir Putin’s assault on democracy have conditioned voters to regard the enemy of Russia as their friend. Mr. McCain’s response was quick, unwavering and tough-sounding, pretty much the traits that voters instinctively yearn for when confronted with an unnerving development on the global stage.

There are some risks for Mr. McCain, though. One he brought on himself on Monday, when he mispronounced the name of Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, three times in one speech. Alone, this won’t hurt him much (although it would have been catastrophic for Mr. Obama), but it’s also not the first time he’s slipped up like this. (Recall his Sunni-Shiite confusion a while back). If he keeps this up, he risks arousing previously nonexistent concerns about his foreign policy competence. Also, if the conflict explodes and there are calls for U.S. military intervention, Mr. McCain could be hit with a fresh round of charges that the Iraq war he has championed has unwisely sidetracked the armed forces.

For Mr. Obama, the news from the Caucasus underscores how important it is for him to reassure voters about his competence on national security issues. Seven years removed from 9/11, international flare-ups still stir among many voters vivid memories of the fear and uncertainty of that day and its aftermath. It’s also possible that this won’t be the only overseas incident between now and Election Day.

Mr. Obama can’t, shouldn’t, and won’t try to out-macho Mr. McCain. It’s not in his D.N.A. But his vice-presidential selection, which he seems close to making, still offers his best chance of providing emotional comfort to voters. The presence of a graybeard like Sam Nunn or Joe Biden, either of whom would be praised by the media for his “gravitas,” would provide wavering voters – who otherwise like Mr. Obama and are inclined to vote Democratic this year – the extra dose of reassurance they are looking for before pulling the lever.

Most Americans don’t know Gori from Tbilisi, but in 2008 any international crisis makes them uneasy. Mr. Obama needs to recognize this.

McCain, Obama and the Caucasus Test