Mention Georgia a few days ago, and most of us would have thought of the state evoked so sweetly in "Georgia on My Mind," the classic tune sung by Ray Charles. Very few of us had heard of the South Ossetia province of Georgia, the nation with the misfortune to have Russia as its neighbor, until war broke out last week.
Like Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait and other unfamiliar places before, Ossetia reminds us that a small, remote corner of the globe can explode into an international crisis. One who was up to speed on Georgia and the menace it faced from Russia was veteran Sen. John McCain. He had visited the Caucasian nation three times in a dozen years. When fighting erupted, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate got on the phone to gather details and issued a statement Friday summarizing the situation, tagging Russia as the aggressor and demanding it withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Georgia.
It took first-term Sen. Barack Obama three tries to get it right. Headed for a vacation in Hawaii, the presumed Democratic candidate for commander in chief issued an even-handed statement, urging restraint by both sides. Later Friday, he again called for mutual restraint but blamed Russia for the fighting. The next day his language finally caught up with toughness of McCain's.
Making matters worse, Obama's staff focused on a McCain aide who had served as a lobbyist for Georgia, charging it showed McCain was "ensconced in a lobbyist culture." Obama's campaign came off as injecting petty partisan politics into an international crisis. This was not a serious response on behalf a man who aspires to be the leader of the Free World. After all, what's so bad about representing a small former Soviet republic struggling to remake itself as a Western-style democracy?
The comparison between the two candidates served to emphasize the strength McCain's experience would bring to the White House in a dangerous world.
Obama's favored approach to international issues, diplomatic talks, failed to stop Russia's invasion. Vladimir Putin, a KGB bull in the former Soviet Union, wants to restore Russia as the supreme power of Eurasia and, to that end, bully former vassal states like Georgia out of their democratic ways. The fear is that Ukraine will come in his cross hairs next.
However the world's newest war ends, America's leadership must recognize and respond to the underlying dynamic of Russia's resurgent aggressive instincts -- the power bestowed on Moscow by its oil and gas riches.
While we don't get fossil fuels from Russia, Western Europe does, and the Kremlin's energy might is fueled by the worldwide demand for oil. Developing U.S. domestic energy sources and alternatives to oil will only enhance our national security and, by reducing the world's petroleum demand, undermine the economic, political and military advantage vast oil and gas reserves give to unfriendly powers like Russia, Iran and Venezuela.
Obama calls for transforming America's economy in a decade. He's got the right idea -- long term. But short term, this nation must push for energy security on all fronts -- now. That includes new offshore drilling for oil, which Obama loathes, and new nuclear plants, which he views with aversion. We can't just wait for breakthrough technologies for wind, solar and biomass energy.
McCain has got it right in advocating new offshore drilling and a federal push to add 45 nuclear generators over the next two decades. Given the evidence of Russia's energy-fueled aggression, he should abandon his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and to extending subsidies he favors for nuclear energy to include renewables.
As Georgia burns, we need to light a fire under all the talk about energy security and start doing what it takes to make it happen.