Russia's new in-your-face "diplomacy" rivals that of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on their most hubristic days. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev don't care if you are with them or against them on their invasion of Georgia. They just want you to get out of their way.
Their bare-knuckle approach has two advantages: It defines the stakes and choices of the Georgia crisis for the rest of the world. And it shapes a dominant foreign policy question for the U.S. presidential campaign this autumn.
The question: Should the United States re-arm Georgia, and if so, at what level? That is, does Washington simply replace the U.S. weapons that Russian forces systematically destroyed in Georgia as a humiliating message for Americans? Or does the collapse of the Georgians this month mean that they need greater quantities and more sophisticated weapons to deter Russia in the future?
That may not present an agonizing choice for John McCain, given his muscular worldview and his sustained championing of Georgian links to the West and NATO. He will advocate riding to the rescue, although he is unlikely to call for an arms resupply while tensions stay at their current explosive level.
It is a more difficult call for Barack Obama, who did not go along with behind-the-scenes efforts by hawkish Democrats to toughen convention-week statements on Russia.
Obama's caution is justified on both substantive and political grounds. There was no point in stepping on the message of his historic nomination last week with foreign policy exegesis. And he understands that the Russia-Georgia conflict may well expose new fault lines in a Democratic Party that he needs to be united but that is still unclear within itself on the use of force abroad.
That was not a question for Denver. Instead, the nominee is pointing toward the first presidential debate -- scheduled for Sept. 26 and devoted to foreign policy and national security -- as the moment to move the Democrats beyond the liberal internationalism, and interventionism, of the Clinton era.
Obama must also use that debate to refute McCain's charges that he is not experienced or wise enough in foreign affairs to be commander in chief. Obama began preparing for the debate even before the convention, with McCain being played by lawyer Greg Craig, who stood in for George W. Bush in 2004 preparations with John Kerry.
Thus far, the Democratic nominee has limited himself to calling for unspecified steps to "further isolate" Russia through action at the United Nations and "other international forums" and to supporting new reconstruction aid for Georgia. That cautious approach has kept under control and out of sight the divisions among the party's foreign policy experts over how strongly Obama should support Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who triggered the crisis by sending Georgian troops into the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia.
Saakashvili and his military are desperate for help since the Russian sweep, which seemed to have as its primary combat objective the destruction of U.S. armor, artillery, radar and even uniforms provided under a six-year-old train-and-equip program. One Russian source claims that Russia destroyed 40 and captured 60 Georgian tanks out of a total force that numbered 120 to 170. The Georgians will not be able to let this issue lie dormant in U.S. politics.
A long-scheduled visit by Vice President Cheney to Tbilisi this week -- as the GOP convention is underway in St. Paul, Minn. -- could also make military help to Georgia and retaliation against Russia hot topics on the campaign trail.
Fortunately for Washington, the inflammatory language Putin and Medvedev used last week in formally recognizing the "independence" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway province, pushed European and other allies into taking a harder line on Russia than they did during the invasion itself.
The Group of Seven industrial democracies and the European Union issued strong condemnations of Russia after having been too divided to do so three weeks ago. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned that the European Union, at a meeting this week, might consider sanctions against Russia. Even China voiced concern about Russian actions on the enclaves.
A contrasting reaction came from Israel, which had sold aerial drones and other defense equipment to Georgia in recent years. Intent on maintaining good relations with Moscow, Israeli officials let it be known in Jerusalem that their country would go slow on resuming military sales to Georgia.
It makes little sense for Obama to try to out-hawk McCain on Georgia. He cannot do so convincingly. Instead, he must show how his sustained advocacy of diplomatic power can work in shoring up the fragile and imperfect democracy in Georgia.