There are many reasons why I'm relieved that John McCain did not become president. But I was reminded of one of them when I picked up The New York Times this morning. According to a front-page story by C.J. Chivers and Ellen Barry, a team of widely-trusted independent monitors have suggested that Georgia--not Russia--was the first to fire in this summer's war between Russia and Georgia. As Chivers and Barry write, the monitors' accounts "call into question the long-standing Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression."
Now this is not to say that Russia was an innocent player in this summer's war. But it certainly makes McCain's assertion that "We are all Georgians now" feel more than a little irresponsible. The editors of this very magazine characterized Barack Obama's response to the Russia/Georgia conflict as "shaky." But Obama's cautious response certainly seems, especially in light of the increasingly complicated picture emerging, the more responsible one. Like invading Iraq without bothering to consider the country's history, condemning--and further isolating--Russia without considering all the facts on the ground (not to mention the complicated historical and ethnic allegiances of the Caucuses) is true folly.
Obama has a real challenge ahead of him when it comes to Russia, which has greeted his ascension not by sending a nice fruit basket or even complimenting his tan, but by threatening to deploy missiles near Poland. But as an erstwhile Russia scholar, I'm hopeful that Obama and his advisers will show a more nuanced understanding of Russian history and psychology than the previous two administrations, which have squandered numerous opportunities to make Russia a partner of the West instead of an antagonist (chief among them, expanding NATO while failing to include Russia).
One of the main reasons that we won the Cold War is because our Russia policy was constructed by experts and scholars like George Kennan who understood precisely how Russia was a threat (expansion) and how it was not (a military-industrial economy that would inevitably collapse on itself). Obama would do well to keep on similarly-versed experts like Robert Gates, who have an understanding of how not to box Russia into an isolationist corner while focusing on the issues of greatest importance to the United States, such as loose nukes and Russia's relationship with Iran. Demonizing Russia, as McCain seemed only too willing to do, only vindicates Russia's suspicion that the West won't give it a fair shake, encouraging its leaders to live up to our worst expectations.