Hillary Clinton's best anti-Obama ad came to be known as the "3 a.m. phone call." It stoked voter worries that in the event of an international crisis, the first-term junior senator from Illinois might be out of his depth. On Aug. 8, the White House phone did ring, alerting President Bush that the Soviet Union, um, that is, Russia, had just sent columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers across the internationally recognized border of Georgia (formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia), a tiny, democratic, America-friendly, Western-leaning country in the Caucasus mountains.
It was a near perfect laboratory test -- the sort that real life rarely provides until it's too late -- for how the two nominees for president would respond to an international emergency. (It also tested the current president -- more on that in a moment.) Sen. Obama flunked. His first response was to urge restraint upon "both sides" -- that is upon the rapist and the rape victim.
A couple of days later, Obama strengthened his condemnation of the Russians (and withdrew his admonition to the Georgians), but then betrayed the soft, weak reflexes that characterize the leftist wing of the Democratic Party to which he belongs. The answer to this blatant and brutal violation of Georgian sovereignty was to -- anyone? -- alert the United Nations. "The United States, Europe and all other concerned countries must stand united in condemning this aggression, and seeking a peaceful resolution to this crisis," Obama said in a statement. "We should continue to push for a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for an immediate end to the violence. This is a clear violation of the sovereignty and internationally recognized borders of Georgia -- the U.N. must stand up for the sovereignty of its members, and peace in the world." Well, yes, and lions should lie down with lambs, but back in the real world, the United Nations has never been able to stop a conflict the parties did not wish to suspend. And since Russia holds a veto, no resolution from the Security Council would be possible. As Claudia Rosett of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies put it: "U.N. mediators can't even protect the dissident monks of Burma or the opposition in Zimbabwe, let alone a small country trying to fight off single-handed an invasion by the Russian army."
Sen. McCain's response was more muscular. He condemned Russia and urged her to "immediately and unconditionally cease ... military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory ... The consequences of Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave." McCain urged the U.N. Security Council to meet on the matter, but strengthened the point by adding that the "US should immediately work with the E.U. and the OSCE to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to reverse this perilous course that it has chosen," and, "We should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia's security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation." Later, McCain also urged that the U.S. convene "an emergency meeting of the G-7 foreign ministers" and offered the view that Russia was seeking more than the independence of South Ossetia, but was instead looking to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mikheil Saakashvili. His use of the term G-7 was significant, since it presaged his later call to throw Russia out of the group that has become the G-8. Noting that Georgia is home to the only oil pipeline that feeds Caspian oil to the west outside of Russian territory or control, he warned, "We must remind Russia's leaders that the benefits they enjoy from being part of the civilized world require their respect for the values, stability and peace of that world."
President Bush was slow off the mark. The image of him chatting up Vladimir Putin in Beijing while Russian tanks were crashing into Georgia (population 4.5 million) was not helpful. Perhaps President Bush has a slow fuse. It required a day or two for him to get his footing after Sept. 11. But now, finally, he has decided to send Condoleezza Rice to confer with Nicolas Sarkozy and then on to Tbilisi to show the flag. The humanitarian airlift, with its clear echoes of the Berlin airlift of 1948, is a bracing substantive and public relations move.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Russians are permitting their Ossetian allies to burn villages, loot, and rob. The Russian soldiers are helping themselves as well. "The whole city is full of marauders," said one eyewitness who fled Gori. "Who in the world is going to help us?" wailed one distraught woman, who then answered her own question by sobbing, "Nobody cares."
Americans had already expressed misgivings about Barack Obama's preparedness for the harsh world we inhabit. This laboratory test can only increase that anxiety.