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September 05, 2008

The Putin Test

Flash forward to early next year. A new president of the United States is about to be sworn in. Vladimir Putin is planning an inauguration day test for him – perhaps another foray into Georgia, seizing all or part of the Ukraine, or just flying dangerously close to US ships at sea. There will be a test; count on it.

Western Europe will be worried about its winter gas supplies and continuing to practice historical amnesia. Eastern Europe will be braver because they remember better, but Eastern Europe is too weak to confront a resurgent Russia. China gains by staying on the sidelines.

What will the test be? It probably depends on who the next president is.

A danger in electing Barack Obama is that, even if he is steelier than he appears, even if he won't wait forever to build a coalition of weak partners, Putin is likely to proceed on the basis of PERCEIVED weakness. He is likely to test Obama much more severely than he is likely to test McCain. Then, even if Obama does react with proper speed and swiftness, Putin may have gone a step too far and the situation'll be more dangerous than if McCain had been elected.

Sure, Vlad shouldn't be picking our new president for us. But he's a huge factor in the world the next president will have to face. McCain's resume is good here. If he ever looked into Putin's eye, he didn't see the same thing George Bush did. He's been warning about a resurgent Russia and its ambitions for a long time. He didn't have to think about the proper reaction when Russia invaded Georgia; he wasn't dangerously nuanced in his response.

Now, some will say, what about Sarah Palin? Wouldn't Putin test her as dangerously as he'd test Obama? Probably, he would out of chauvinism if nothing else. But Palin's not at the top of the ticket. If something happens to McCain after an administration has been put together and begun to function, the temptations for mischief-making won't be as great as on inauguration day. Put another way, Putin won't shy away from testing Obama because Joe Biden is the understudy.

McCain told Bush we needed more force in Iraq almost from the beginning of the war; he didn't support Rumsfeld's attempt to win without inhaling too often. McCain was influential in convincing Bush, belatedly, that a surge was needed and would be effective. He supported the surge when it looked like political suicide to do so. Most importantly, it appears he was right. BTW, Biden and I made the same mistake: we thought Iraq couldn't be put together so it was time to partition it; he voted against the surge. Joe and I were wrong; McCain was right; that's what I want in a president.


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