"In a way," President Saakashvili of Georgia said yesterday, "Russians are fighting a proxy war with the West through us." Senator McCain appears to echo the thought. His way of expressing it is an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, in which he states, "As I told President Saakashvili on the day the ceasefire [with Russia] was declared, today we are all Georgians. We mustn't forget it."
Since Mikheil Saakashvili is possibly the only Georgian McCain knows, and more probably the one knows best, the Republican invites us to empathize with him and view his struggle as ours, which is just what Saakashvili himself is saying. This is the neocon line, which asserts that the fight over South Ossetia isn't just a shoving match between a big bully and a little bully, but really part of the long twilight struggle between "freedom" (embodied by Saakashvili) and "authoritarianism," embodied by Prime Minister Putin of Russia. It isn't enough to argue that Russia is beating up Georgia to punish the smaller country for wanting to join NATO; it must be argued that Putin seeks to destroy Saakashvili because Georgia is a democracy and thus a danger, due to its proximity, to Russian authoritarianism.
McCain's identification of Saakashvili with the cause of democracy throws his own credentials slightly into question. Saakashvili's party came to power in Georgia through the so-called "Rose Revolution," a people-power protest campaign following elections in 2003 that Saakashvili alleged, apparently with some justification, to have been rigged or stolen by the incumbent party. Saakashvili may have been the good guy in this story, but let it be noted that he got his foot in the doorway to power through extra-constitutional means. Would McCain recommend the same tactics to Americans who might think their elections were stolen? Less than a year ago, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency in Georgia and sent riot police into the streets to break up demonstrations against his government. It should be noted that he agreed soon afterward to early elections as a concession to the protesters, but it must also be noted that this deviation from civil liberty has not colored McCain's perception of the man and his regime. Does McCain even know about it? Or does he think all those demonstrators were Russian stooges?
Finally, McCain cannot be allowed to preach the glories of Georgia's struggle against Russian tyranny without addressing the claims of Ossetians, Abkhazians and other minorities within Georgia. Let him tell us whether he thinks that all the separatists or autonomy seekers are simply stalking horses for Russia, and whether all ethnic groups are as entitled to separate and form sovereign nations as Georgia was to break from the Soviet Union. Let's hear what freedom means to a South Ossetian according to McCain, and let's hear what Senator Obama, Rep. Barr, Rep. McKinney, Ralph Nader and the other candidates have to say on the subject. Maybe more than any plans for Iraq, what they have to say about Georgia and Russia will show us the sort of foreign policies we can choose from for the next four years.