John McCain and Barack Obama differed initially in their reaction to Russia's invasion of Georgia. McCain condemned Russia and called for it to withdraw its troops. Obama called for "all sides to show restraint," presumably including the Georgians. By Saturday, as the Russians appeared to advance beyond South Ossetia, Obama was singling them out for blame and calling upon them to withdraw. The two candidates had moved closer, but there were still important differences.
McCain wants to put the United States and Western Europe back on a Cold War footing with Russia. In response to the war in Georgia, McCain called for a meeting of the G-7, excluding Russia, to develop a position. He was using the crisis to further his plan for excluding Russia from the G-8. McCain also criticized the European nations for holding up Georgia's membership in NATO and urged them to "revisit the decision." Making Georgia part of NATO would make it part of an American-dominated military alliance.
By calling initially for "all sides to show restraint," Obama implicitly acknowledged that the Russian invasion was at least partly in response to the Georgian government's military assault against the pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia. He later singled out Russia as it became clear that Russia is not interested merely in defending the South Ossetians. But Obama's more cautious position may reflect a different understanding of the broader events that have led up to this crisis.
McCain has consistently refused to acknowledge that Russia's turn toward an aggressive nationalism was triggered at all by American moves to expand NATO, abrogate the anti-missile treaty, build a pipeline through Georgia bypassing Russia, and a new anti-missile system in Eastern Europe. For McCain, it's simply a product of Vladimir Putin's evil intentions. That kind of outlook could fuel a new Cold War.
In truth, there is very little that the U.S., already entangled in two wars of its own, can do to end the war in Georgia. But over the next years, the U.S. is going to have to tread very carefully in its relations with Russia - on one hand, discouraging Russian aggression beyond its borders but, on other hand, recognizing that the U.S. cannot hope to create a military alliance and a set of client states on Russia's border without provoking severe reaction. McCain is entirely focused on deterring Putin and Russia--he dismisses older Russian fears of encirclement--and that's a reason to worry about the foreign policy of a McCain administration.
--John B. Judis