Now that the dust is settling the big question about the dust-up in Georgia remains: Why was Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili so stupid to start this war?
There are a couple of theories. One is Saakashvili was under the mistaken impression the US military, even NATO, would intervene if Russia fought back after Georgia entered the breakaway province of South Ossetia on 7-8 August, devastating Tskhinvali, and according to Moscow, killing a number of Russian peacekeepers.
The US stood on the sidelines when Russia indeed punished Georgia. Georgian civilians at first told Western reporters they were angry at America for not coming to their aid. Then several days later many started to blame Saakashvili for creating such a mess.
It seems hard to imagine he would have tried to seize South Ossetia if he were not led to believe he had American backing. According to Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador, joint US-Georgian military exercises code-named Immediate Response ended just hours before Georgian troops moved into the province.
Churkin says the Americans gave Saakashvili a "green light." But there was no immediate response from the United States.
It looks like Saakashvili and Russia were both set up.
By eliciting a heavy-handed Russian response, American political leaders, and their mouthpieces in the corporate media, can blame Russia and revive misplaced Cold War analogies. They falsely portray Russia as the brutal aggressor, bent on violently overthrowing the Georgian regime, with Ukraine and others to follow.
Condoleezza Rice called Russia's intervention the new 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barack Obama's chief foreign policy adviser, compared it to the Soviet invasion of Finland. Right wing radio hosts are rabid about the new Russian "threat." The New York Times writes about Russia's supposed challenge to democracies.
Who benefits most from painting this a revival of Soviet-era aggression?
The Georgian crisis has created a campaign issue McCain can run on. McCain's best chance to win, unless Obama self-destructs, is to portray himself as the Cold War-era war hero ready to do battle again against our old Cold War adversary. McCain is yesterday's man, so revive yesterday's "threat." He stood up to Russia while his opponent was out fishing in Hawaii.
A compliant media will keep the phony Russian threat an issue throughout the campaign. It could even raise Condi Rice's vice presidential fortunes, as her only expertise was the former Soviet Union. The original Cold War was based on manufactured threats. The new trumped up threats about Russia will make Condi's experience "relevant" again. They can both run on Russia.
So did the Bush administration provoke Moscow to help elect McCain and keep neo-conservative foreign policy alive? Was McCain himself involved in setting this Russian bear trap?
On April 17, the Washington Post reports, he had a telephone conversation with Saakashvili, set up by McCain's chief foreign policy adviser, neocon Randy Scheunemann, who at the time was still being paid by his friend Saakashvili as a registered foreign agent for Georgia.
After the conversation, McCain issued a statement, written by Scheunemann, in which he warned Russia over Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia. Later that day, Scheunemann's Orion Strategies lobbying firm signed a new $200,000 deal with Georgia: all in a day's work.
Scheunemann is a leading neo-conservative lobbyist for oil companies and arms manufacturers who has enriched himself and his clients by pushing for war, notably in Iraq. He has been an important player in Georgia, where the United States has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and military hardware, mostly to protect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that bypasses Russia and Iran on its way to Turkey.
The US has more than a hundred military advisers in the country and US Special Forces have trained the Georgian military. The Bush administration and Scheunemann were championing Georgia's bid to join NATO. The administration has angered Russia by becoming so heavily involved in Moscow's backyard in competition for pipeline routes. This rivalry will grow fiercer as recoverable oil becomes scarcer.
American officials say they privately told Saakashvili not to provoke Russia. Rice was in Tbilisi last month and supposedly told Saakashvili not to start a war. But as The New York Times reported: "Ms. Rice's ...visit to Tbilisi demonstrates the accumulation of years of mixed messages may have made the American warnings fall on deaf ears. The United States took a series of steps that emboldened Georgia: sending advisers to build up the Georgian military, including an exercise last month with more than 1,000 American troops; pressing hard to bring Georgia into the NATO orbit; ... and loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia's territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia's separatist enclaves."
Its not surprising Saakashvili was convinced the U.S. would come to his aid, the way Hungarian rebels believed the U.S. would in 1956.
Scheunemann organized McCann's two trips to Georgia and set up that phone call. McCain refers to the Georgian president as "my friend Misha" and phoned him several times a day during the crisis. Did Scheunemann and McCain contribute to Saakashvili's impression that the US would come to his rescue?
We may never know the answer to that question. But we can be certain that the phony "resurgent Russian threat" narrative, if the electorate buys it, could propel John McCain into the White House, unless it is exposed as the ploy it seems to be.