Hot or Cool on Russia?

In the days after the Russian invasion of Georgia, the world had a chance to examine the different foreign policy styles of John McCain and Barack Obama. It was a telling comparison that offered some clear signs of how the two candidates would react to crises.

The contrast was between hot and cool; between quick action and cautious deliberation; between a man with his eye on military and strategic issues and another who is focused on diplomacy.

Listening to McCain, you sensed the beginning of a new Cold War; hearing Obama, you felt a desire to prevent that Cold War from taking root. McCain's advice could be summed up as "get tough" to deter the aggressor; Obama's tone suggested a desire to go slow until it was clear what moves made sense.

It's conventional wisdom that the tough stance is usually a political winner and that the Russia crisis has helped McCain. But I wonder: The war in Georgia actually makes a strong argument for Obama's more deliberative approach. What created this crisis was a misreading of signals and a failure to communicate clearly about the looming confrontation. There was plenty of McCain-style rhetoric, but not enough Obama-style diplomacy.

Within hours of the Aug. 8 invasion, McCain was voicing his indignation and demanding that Russia unconditionally halt its military operations and withdraw its troops. Three days later, he called the attack "a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance to the United States of America" and urged a series of measures to check Russia. Most important, he argued that NATO should reverse its April decision and approve Georgia's request for prompt membership -- a move that would commit the alliance to go to war if Georgia were attacked.

Obama's first reaction was more measured: "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint," he said on Aug. 8. He had sharpened his tone by Aug. 11, but the focus was still on diplomatic solutions. "Let me be clear: We seek a future of cooperative engagement with the Russian government," he said.

Which approach will play better with the American public? Normally, the answer would be McCain's aggressive stance. Vladimir Putin's Russia makes such a convincing villain, and plucky Georgia such an attractive victim, that McCain's hard line has won wide support, even among Democrats.

But America is also weary of war in Iraq -- and of the mind-set that led the Bush administration to commit U.S. lives and resources without clearly thinking through the consequences. So perhaps people will listen to a candidate who argues that we need to look before we leap in the Caucasus. America's eagerness to "pay any price, bear any burden" overseas, as JFK put it, is surely diminished.

The Georgia crisis, in truth, shouldn't have surprised anyone. It has been coming at us in slow motion for several years. The Russians, far from hiding their intentions, have warned repeatedly that U.S. attempts to bring Georgia into NATO were unacceptable and would have consequences; the Bush administration didn't respond to Russia's statement of its interests in a way that might have deterred Moscow. It didn't make clear in advance the consequences Russia would pay if it attacked. Instead, the United States tried to play both sides of the street -- encouraging Georgia's NATO hopes, but not just yet.

Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, kept poking the Russian bear -- and finally launched the attack on South Ossetia that gave Russia a pretext for its devastating response. The administration knew Saakashvili was walking into a trap; officials even told him so privately -- but not with a decisive, high-level intervention that might have checked the disaster.

The notion that we are locked in a new Cold War is the most dangerous misjudgment of all. That's what is driving Putin: He feels threatened and encircled by a NATO that, in fact, has no hostile intent toward Moscow.

Rather than matching him in this march backward, the United States should lead its allies in a careful but firm process of containment. In drawing lines, we need to make sure they are realistic and sustainable -- and that the promises we make are ones we can keep.

Because of Putin's inability to escape Cold War thinking, the next president will face a serious Russia problem. Does America want a leader whose instincts in this new test are aggressive and confrontational, or deliberative and diplomatic? There's no obvious right answer yet, which will make this debate interesting.

David Ignatius.