Both US presidential candidates have denounced Russia's military actions in Georgia in recent days. "Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st century Europe," said John McCain. His opponent, Barack Obama, echoed the sentiment: "I condemn Russia's aggressive actions and reiterate my call for an immediate cease-fire." These noble-sounding statements barely scrape the surface of what will be required of them as president.
The emerging narrative that these statements help endorse is that Russia was the clear wrong-doer here, but it was actually Georgia which had first sent in troops to rein in the breakaway province of South Ossetia that precipitated the Russian response. This is why President Bush initially gave a more measured response than the presidential candidates, citing Russia's actions to be "disproportionate." This is the difference between leadership and campaigning. Whereas Bush would have to mediate between two or more parties, the candidates have the easier job of simply condeming one side.
As both presidential candidates struggle to sound more hawkish than the other in protecting America against global unrest, we should remember that most foreign policy crises are not a 3AM call for which the simple answer is just to send in troops. President Bush is weighing the long term consequences of aggravating an important global power against the need to address a short term problem. This is more Cuban Missile Crisis than Operation Desert Storm.
When President Bush ordered that the US air-lifted 2,000 Georgian troops from Iraq back home, and stopped short of sending American assistance, he recognized that this crisis, while non-trivial, isn't just about the seccesionist enclave of South Ossetia in Georgia. It is about the former states of the Soviet Union playing off Russia and the West in a game not too different from what was happening half a century ago. This crisis could conflagarate dozens of other brewing border and ethnic disputes in the Caucasus.
Two decades after the declared fact, the cold war, or at least its aftershocks, is not over. We are certainly not yet graduated from a world in which wars of aggression between states have ceased to occur. Terrorism is not the only, maybe not even the central, threat to global security in our time. (Obama missed his opportunity to make this powerful argument this week; instead he appeared weak in the face of a resurgent Russia.) Yes the world is simpler if we could name one foe, unfortunately, the challenges to our security are manifold. The next US president, like every one before him who had had to learn on the job, would have to do more more than condemn and chastise errant nations in a world not cleanly divided between the good and the evil. As a global leader, he would have to bring together a smorgasbord of actors, all of whom will have legitimate self-interests, and none of whom will be guiltless.