The Risk of the Zinger
It was February 2006 in Munich, and John McCain's eyes were flashing with the mischievous spark that comes when he's about to fire a verbal rocket. "I've got a zinger coming," he told me, referring to a speech on Russia he would give a few hours later at the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy.
And McCain did indeed deliver a zinger. He blasted Vladimir Putin for "the pursuit of autocracy at home and abroad" -- and then urged that Russia be excluded from the G-8 summit of industrialized nations. For good measure, he included a call for Georgia, already a thorn in Russia's side, to join NATO.
McCain's 2006 speech made news, as he knew it would. So did an address in Munich the night before from Georgia's emotional president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He recalled how he had cried the night the Berlin Wall fell -- and then pleaded for Western support for Georgia's efforts to recover the renegade province of South Ossetia and end what he called the "cancer of separatism."
Now that Russia has invaded Georgia, McCain can point to that speech and argue, "I told you so." And it's true enough that the Arizona Republican was early to warn that Putin's Russia was heading in a dangerous direction and that the West should be vigilant. But what sticks in my memory of that day in Munich was the flash in McCain's eyes before he made his provocative speech.
McCain likes zingers. We've all seen that mischievous look -- just before he shot a quip or sarcastic one-liner at GOP rivals such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. It's one of his appealing qualities, but in this case it worries me. Zingers don't make good foreign policy. They embolden friends and provoke adversaries -- and in the Georgia crisis, that has proved to be a deadly combination.
In the aftermath of the Georgia war, many commentators have argued that the mercurial Saakashvili walked into a trap by launching an attack Aug. 7 on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali -- providing the pretext for the brutal Russian response. That conclusion emerges from a meticulous reconstruction by The Post's Peter Finn.
So what encouraged Saakashvili to make his reckless gamble? Partly it was the ambivalent policy of the Bush administration, which told the Georgian leader one month that "We always fight for our friends" (as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in July in Tbilisi about Georgia's bid to join NATO) and the next month cautioned restraint. And partly it was cheerleading from the pro-Georgia lobby, in which McCain has been one of the loudest voices.
Let's put aside the fact that McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, has in fact been a lobbyist for Georgia. In his own feisty comments in recent months, McCain encouraged Georgians to believe America would back them up in a crisis. That expectation was naive, and it was wrong to encourage it. It was especially wrong to give a volatile leader such as Saakashvili what he evidently imagined was an American blank check.
In the post-Cold War world, small countries often get into fights they can't finish -- hoping that big powers will come to their rescue. That happened in the 1990s with Bosnia and Kosovo, which hoped their desperate vulnerability would force Western intervention, as it eventually did. On the other side, the Serbs played the same game, hoping (wrongly, as it turned out) that Russia would intervene. The better part of wisdom sometimes is to tell small, embattled nations and ethnic groups: Swallow your pride and compromise; the cavalry isn't coming to save you.
There's a moral problem with all the pro-Georgia cheerleading, which has gotten lost in the op-ed blasts against Putin's neo-imperialism. A recurring phenomenon of the early Cold War was that America encouraged oppressed peoples to rise up and fight for freedom -- and then, when things got rough, abandoned them to their fate. The CIA did that egregiously in the early 1950s, broadcasting to the Soviet republics and the nations of Eastern Europe that America would back their liberation from Soviet tyranny. After the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, responsible U.S. leaders learned to be more cautious, and more honest about the limits of American power.
Now, after the Georgia war, McCain should learn that lesson: American leaders shouldn't make threats the country can't deliver or promises it isn't prepared to keep. The rhetoric of confrontation may make us feel good, but other people end up getting killed.