The Great Game

Interesting op-ed in The Wall Street Journal today written by Melik Kaylan, a New-York based writer who has reported often from Georgia. Titled “Welcome Back to the Great Game,” it gives some important insights into the game that Russia is playing.

He points this out: “Having overestimated the power of the Soviet Union in its last years, we have consistently underestimated the ambitions of Russia since. Already, a great deal has been said about the implication of Russia’s invasion for Ukraine, the Baltic States and Europe generally. But few have noticed the direct strategic threat to U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Kremlin is not about to reignite the Cold War for the love of a few thousand Ossetians or even for its animosity toward five million Georgians. This is calculated strategic maneuvering. And make no mistake, it’s about countering U.S. power at its furthest stretch with Moscow’s power very close to home.”

The Russian invasion of Georgia is an opening gambit in a new round of the Great Game, the struggle for supremacy in a suddenly multipolar world. The United States, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, is scrambling to find a way to counter the Russian aggression. The Chinese are watching our reaction carefully, seeing how effective we can be, if we still have our swagger as the lone superpower. The former Soviet bloc countries, from the Baltics to the Balkans and stretching through Asia, are also wondering (and worrying). Do we have the will to back down the Russians?

Into this mess comes the United States presidential election. This election, pitting an inexperienced candidate who casts himself as an agent of change versus a very experienced candidate who is a member of an unpopular party, offers a tantalizing contrast.

Barack Obama has postured himself as a citizen of the world. John McCain is unabashedly American. Obama has urged a quick withdrawal from Iraq. McCain has insisted on victory. Obama is beloved in Europe, as witnessed by his reception by 200,000 Berliners. McCain is respected, but hardly beloved. Obama will perhaps be the most protectionist president in decades, while McCain is an avowed free-trader. Obama opposes efforts to strengthen our ally Colombia with a free trade pact, while McCain strongly supports it. McCain has long warned about Russian mischief, while Obama has said nothing notable on the subject. Obama can best be described as a pacifist, McCain a warrior.

Who would Vladimir Putin rather face as he plays the Great Game? McCain the warrior or Obama the pacifist? Who would the people of Lithuania and Poland rather win in the U.S. election? The man who urged a quick withdrawal from Iraq or the man who insisted on victory? Who would Hugo Chavez like to see win? The man who wants to strengthen Colombia, a regional rival, or the man who doesn’t? Who would China like to see win? The one who has proved he will be tough in a fight or the one who has proved he can do well at the Harvard Law Review?

The Great Game isn’t a game. It is deadly serious. The Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians — all are looking carefully at who we select to lead the world’s lone superpower. Is this the time to take a flyer on a guy who has no experience? Is this the time to pick the intellectual or the leader? Is this the time to vote for change or to vote for continued American strength and leadership in the world?

George Bush famously looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and misread what he saw. What will Vladmir Putin see when he looks into the eyes of our next president? Will he see the eyes of a warrior or the eyes of a babe in the woods?


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