Georgia Crisis: What Would McCain, Obama Do?

Up until the early 18th century, princes and kings resolved their differences by going to war. It was quite personal: the ruler would raise an army in his name and sally forth with the troops under his own banner. War in this era was fought as a kind of grand and ultimate sport, a tournament of killing. It was seasonal: the troops (mostly peasants) would be sent home from winter quarters to plant crops in the spring, and campaigned and fought in the summer and fall. In Russia, when Peter the Great wanted to prove that his rather backward nation was a great power, he raised a mighty army and fought the other great powers, warring for years with his neighbors in Sweden and Poland.

Peter built the city of St. Petersburg to face toward the West. Russia's latest autocrat, Vladimir Putin, is from that imperial capital. He recently built his own modern palace not far from that of Catherine the Great on the outskirts of the city. Putin apparently sees himself as a ruler of the old school, in the tradition of the Tsars. His war on Georgia feels very personal--state television shows him striding about army camps and huddled with his generals. Like Peter, he seems to be sending a message to the West, that Russia cannot be dismissed as a minor power.

It all seems so retro, the vanity of a despot flexing his muscles in the ancient way. That could never happen here, we think.

Or could it? In American's representative bureaucracy, power is sharply circumscribed by checks and balances. Except, that is, the power to make war. The responsibility of the chief executive to protect national security is great under the Constitution and, as a practical matter, made greater by a long history of congressional deference (if not political cowardice). In theory, the legislature could close the purse strings, but since Vietnam, lawmakers have been reluctant to do so. Who wants to be blamed for failing to back the troops with whatever they need to win? It seems that all the president needs to do is start a war, and congress will fall in line, albeit with a certain amount of posturing and speechifying.

The courts have also, at least until recently, stepped aside and granted the executive great leeway to protect national security. After 9/11, the Bush administration was given free rein to start and prosecute wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The decision was entirely George Bush's (with Dick Cheney whispering behind the curtain). Russia's invasion of Georgia is cause to closely examine the acts and behavior of Prime Minister Putin. But it's also a good opportunity to observe the would-be American presidents, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, as they deal with what some are calling a "3 a.m. moment"--after the Hillary Clinton ad asking voters who they want picking up the phone at the White House during a national crisis.

So far, Obama has been measured but perhaps reticent. McCain has been confident and aggressive--but maybe too much so? The one bright side of the Georgia crisis is that it may help American voters focus on what kind of leader should next call the White House home.