Russia's invasion of Georgia on the pretext of "protecting" Russian peacekeepers stationed in the separatist enclave of South Ossetia and ending the "ethnic cleansing" of native Russians living there, is a sobering reminder that the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was not a sign that old-line communists were ready to walk the sawdust trail of repentance and convert to capitalism, democracy, human rights and religious freedom. Quite the contrary.
Vladimir Putin, who continues to effectively run Russia through his hand-picked "successor," President Dmitry Medvedev, still resembles what he once was: the head of the notorious KGB security agency. Putin never renounced communism, nor has he embraced Western values. Russia was admitted to the G-8 largely because many in the West believed it would soften Putin and transform the Russian bear into a pussycat. That was a mistake, and now we see Putin for what he is: a man intent on restoring Russia's "greatness" by means that closely resemble those employed by deceased Soviet dictators.
On Tuesday, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last head of state, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post in which he blamed Georgia for Russia's invasion. Blaming the victim has long been a strategy of dictatorial leaders who seek a moral high ground for immoral actions.
The horrors visited on the Georgian people, including thousands of deaths, thousands more wounded and massive property destruction, provides a look into how the two American presidential candidates would handle such a crisis. On vacation in Hawaii, Barack Obama offered a somewhat tepid initial statement through a spokesperson, until confronted by John McCain's much more forceful one.
Obama then issued a second and longer statement in person. Appearing tieless, and somewhat clueless before cameras, Obama sounded as if the media were doing him a favor by showing up. He began rather informally with, "I appreciate all you guys taking the time to be here." Isn't that their job? Obama's remarks were delivered in a halting voice, with many pauses and "uhs," making him appear uncomfortable, lacking in his usual self-confidence - even hubris - and unfamiliar with the words apparently written by someone else.
Obama called on Russia to stop its bombing of Georgia, but what was missing was an "or else." Obama's version of an "or else" consisted of calling upon the feckless United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution for "an immediate end to the violence." Wow, that's likely to make Russia sweat! The world is still waiting for Iran to comply with several U.N. resolutions. Saddam Hussein ignored 16 U.N. resolutions before the United States enforced them.
Obama also wants a U.N. mediator "to address the crisis" and he even called for "other international forums" to be convened "to condemn this aggression." Not only that, Obama said multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia need to be "reviewed," including "Russia's interest in joining the World Trade Organization." Is that tough, or what? It's or what.
John McCain's "or else" was far more specific, credible and has the potential to produce results. McCain warned Russia of "severe, long-term negative consequences" from the Georgia invasion, charged Moscow with intending to topple Georgia's pro-Western government and urged NATO to "convene an emergency session to demand a cease-fire" (apparently achieved through the intervention of France) "and begin discussions on the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia and the implications for NATO's future relationship with Russia."
McCain has long been a critic of what he regards as Russia's retreat on human rights and democratic reforms. If elected president, he said he would push to exclude Russia from membership in the G-8 group of industrial nations.
Whatever the political outcome of Russia's invasion of Georgia, the incident has reminded American voters that in uncertain times it is dangerous to choose a rookie with no foreign policy experience and a juvenile approach to world affairs over one tempered by war who understands that U.N. resolutions might as well be written in disappearing ink.
John McCain knows that peace through strength is what defeated the Soviet Union and that it's peace through strength that will best preserve free nations and advance their interests.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at email@example.com.