Mikheil Saakashvili, his eyes bloodshot from sleeplessness and his face caked with television makeup, summoned his closest advisers into his office above Tbilisi's Old City. It was 2 a.m. on Aug. 12, and columns of Russian tanks were rolling down the highway toward the Georgian capital. "I am never going to flee," the president told his team. "I will not live my life regretting that I abandoned my own country at war." Then he sent them home to change out of their suits and ties so they could fight the invaders. Swigging a can of Red Bull, Saakashvili grabbed a phone and called the trusted friend and mentor he had turned to every night since Aug. 8, when the war began: John McCain. A source close to the Republican standard-bearer, asking not to be named discussing a private conversation, says McCain voiced support for diplomatic and political pressure against Moscow. "Hang in there," the senator said, according to a Saakashvili aide on condition of anonymity. "We are not going to let this happen … We are doing everything we can to stop this aggression."
It's not surprising that Saakashvili, 41, known to Georgians by the nickname Misha, would turn to McCain at a moment of crisis: their decade-long friendship is among the closest McCain has with any foreign leader. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, traveled to Georgia in 2006 with a delegation led by McCain. He says Saakashvili saw the Republican nominee "as a man of greatness … on a different level" from the other legislators. And it's clear why McCain would admire the Georgian president. In many ways he's McCain's McCain—a passionate and unorthodox reformer, and a stalwart freedom fighter ranged against the Russian bear. Saakashvili's stint as Georgia's justice minister ended abruptly at a cabinet meeting in 2001 when he brandished a dossier of photos showing top ministers' lavish country homes, slapped it on the table and demanded that his colleagues be prosecuted immediately. "We are similar in many ways," Saakashvili says. "We agree that you can't compromise your beliefs."
That's exactly what worries some of McCain's many foreign-policy consultants. As the two presidential candidates prepare to debate foreign affairs and national security this Friday night, the Republican nominee is widely assumed to have an edge: polls consistently show that voters think he's better prepared than Sen. Barack Obama to be commander in chief. His relationships with leaders like Saakashvili contribute to that reputation. Yet McCain's affection for Misha runs counter to the instincts of many Republican foreign-policy "realists." (GOP moderates use the term to distinguish themselves from the party's neoconservative wing. McCain's chief foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, a former Saakashvili lobbyist, is identified with the neocons.) The candidate likes Saakashvili's sense of moral absolutes, says Dimitri Simes, founding president of the realists' home think tank, the Nixon Center: "I understand how someone who takes this posture would appeal to Senator McCain, who also does not tend to see international relations in shades of gray."
The concern, according to a McCain adviser and former Republican administration official, who did not want his name linked to criticism of the nominee's positions, is this: "When you personalize these issues, you lose sight of some more basic national interests." Saakashvili's tough talk about Moscow may ignite McCain's imagination, but his brinksmanship in August led to the rout of Georgia's armed forces and the worst U.S.-Russia standoff since the cold war. Simes says that "a number of leading Republican realists have shared their reservations with Senator McCain regarding Saakashvili and blind U.S. support for Georgia."
It's hard not to like Saakashvili. He's engaging, unaffected and ferociously smart. He laughs at his own jokes. Like McCain, he has an easy relationship with the press. He sends text messages to visiting reporters from his private mobile phone (without hiding the number) and invites them to spontaneous 3 a.m. dinners. His wife, Sandra, admits he's "impulsive," but says, "That's a good thing. He needs to grasp every opportunity. He wants things done fast." For the most part, though, Saakashvili is remarkably poised, fluently chatting in English, French, Russian and Ukrainian in a loud, deep voice. When speaking of his deepest beliefs—like the virtues of freedom and the evils of communism—he does so with a conviction that is neither glib nor scripted.
It was thanks to McCain's hatred of totalitarianism that he first met Saakashvili. As chairman of the nonpartisan International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy organization founded by Ronald Reagan, McCain directed a search for potential leaders in the former Soviet republics after communism's collapse. He was host at an IRI-sponsored gathering in Washington attended by Saakashvili in 1995. The young Georgian, a graduate of Columbia University and George Washington University Law School, had just decided to give up a career with a New York law firm to go home and enter politics. Their friendship grew when McCain visited Tbilisi in 1997. Saakashvili, by then a parliamentary deputy working for judicial reform, impressed McCain with his enthusiasm for what Saakashvili calls "universal principles, not just American principles, of fairness and realizing your potential."
McCain stood by his friend during the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to the presidency in 2003. The young Georgian was running for his country's top job when McCain returned to Tbilisi with a senior U.S. delegation to encourage the incumbent candidate, Eduard Shevardnadze, to respect the voters' will. (According to Saakashvili, McCain also foresaw trouble: "He told the … [U.S.] military attaché to be sure to give me a flak jacket.") That didn't stop Shevardnadze from trying to rig the results. After Saakashvili and his supporters occupied Parliament in protest, McCain called Shevardnadze—also a longtime friend—urging him to step down peacefully. Shevardnadze eventually did so. "It was a time of great optimism for the friends of Georgia," recalls a senior U.S. official who was in Tbilisi at the time (he asked not to be named because of his job). "Amid all the dysfunction of the old Soviet empire, suddenly you have this young, smart guy charging in to clean house."
Straight out of the gate, Saakashvili fired 80,000 state employees, including 90 percent of the old KGB-trained security force and every last member of the country's notoriously corrupt traffic police. Since then three Parliament members, 16 prosecutors, 45 judges, 400 police and even a serving cabinet minister have been indicted and jailed for graft. And bypassing Georgia's old ruling class, Misha filled his cabinet with young, Western-educated former NGO staffers. "Only young people had the enthusiasm to change the country," says Georgia's state-security secretary, Alexander Lomaia, 50, the cabinet's oldest member. (The defense minister is 29.)
But in the years since, the president has lost patience with dissenters. His government is now a one-man show, former allies complain. "Misha is the only one making decisions in Georgia," says former foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, now an opposition leader. "He was alone when he made a decision to start the war, and he is alone now. The world needs to beware."
The ugliest moment came last November, when baton-wielding riot cops put an end to five days of antigovernment protests that turned violent. Within hours, 250 Georgian Special Forces soldiers raided Imedi TV, a pro-opposition station. "On the stairs to the first floor, a person in camouflage pointed a gun at my forehead," says Imedi's news director, Giorgi Targamadze. "I could see my colleagues lying face down on the floor." More than 500 people were hospitalized, but Saakashvili stands by the crackdown. "Crowds attacked the police, and we did what any other European country would do," he says. The phone consultations with McCain continued as always. "Senator McCain made clear that he wanted full freedoms restored, internationally monitored free elections and greater institutionalization of political reforms," says the source close to McCain, again asking not to be named discussing a private conversation. Still, many opposition leaders say Saakashvili thought his Washington friendships would insulate him from criticism.
A confrontation over Georgia's breakaway regions has been brewing for a long time. Moscow first sided with separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse, and tensions have soared in recent years. According to a source close to the Russian administration who spoke on condition of anonymity, the diminutive prime minister Vladimir Putin was stung to hear that Saakashvili privately called him "Lilliputin." But nothing has upset the Russian leader more than Georgia's desire to join NATO. After Saakashvili got a partial green light for eventual membership at the alliance's April meeting in Bucharest, the Kremlin began preparing for war, says Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst. Russian troops began a series of exercises inside South Ossetia, and Russian military engineers repaired a strategic railway into Abkhazia, allowing the rapid deployment of armored units.
Even so, in the end it was Saakashvili who gave the order to fire first. The Georgian president says he made the decision after receiving intelligence reports of massive Russian convoys crossing into Ossetian territory. "We had no choice," Saakashvili says. "I could not sit back while my country was being invaded." But by shooting first, he allowed the Russians to claim that they were merely intervening to keep the Georgians from committing "genocide." Saakashvili denies doing anything to provoke Russia. "Putin is a hooligan in the courtyard who is going around breaking windows," he says. "There was nothing we could do to 'provoke' the hooligan: he had chosen his victim."
Russia plainly wanted to lure Saakashvili into a war he couldn't win. So why did he take the bait? "There has always been a section of the Georgian leadership who believed the only way to internationalize this problem was to start a fight," says a senior U.S. official who's not authorized to speak on the record. "We've been telling them all along: Don't do it!" One senior Saakashvili adviser saw the showdown coming a year ago and told friends he was close to quitting in frustration. "They're going to start a war in order to lose it," the aide warned two colleagues, who spoke to NEWSWEEK on condition of anonymity. Nevertheless, Saakashvili denies any intention of dragging Georgia's allies into war. "I absolutely don't want Europe to fight for us," he says. "But Europe faces a choice: to stop [Russian] aggression here or wait for it to claim its next victim."
Still, GOP realists aren't sure his version of events can be trusted. Some natives of the breakaway regions say Georgian troops targeted civilians—as Moscow has repeatedly argued. "What worries me is that Senator McCain did not talk to senior Russian officials," says Simes. "I always thought if you're a combat pilot, you'd want to understand the enemy. But neither he nor his advisers are interested in getting the Russian side of the story."
Nonsense, says Scheunemann. "Senator McCain is completely aware of Russian positions and actions," the foreign-policy aide says. "That is why he has expressed concern over Russian policies for so many years." The former administration official shares Simes's concern, but he's … realistic. The final weeks of a presidential run are "not the optimum situation to have a foreign-policy seminar," he says. "I have no doubt that if and when he's president, [McCain] will want to listen to different perspectives and take balanced decisions."