The discovery that John McCain’s remarks on Georgia were derived from Wikipedia is, to put it politely, disturbing and even depressing — but not surprising. Under the tutelage of the neoconservatives, who revealed their superficial understanding of Iraq both before and after the invasion, he favors bellicose grandstanding over strategic thinking. So why delve deeper than a quick Google search?

Worse still, neither he nor his advisers yet grasp how our misadventure in Mesopotamia has diminished American power and prestige. In fact, the Wikipedia episode — an awful embarrassment that would have devastated the presidential campaign of Barack Obama or any other Democrat — revealed an underlying weakness in Sen. McCain’s vaunted grasp of foreign policy.

Still enthralled by an exhausted ideology, he seems unable to analyze how we can avoid manipulation by allies or adversaries while advancing our own real interests. Those interests include the cultivation of democracy but also the promotion of regional stability and international security. Pretending to confront Russia from a position of weakness doesn’t help.

Frankly, the Arizona Republican’s latest foray onto the world stage suggested that he is not quite ready for the responsibilities of the presidency. When he emphasized that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion,” he sounded like a politician who will gladly damage our global influence merely for the sake of pandering to his partisan base.

Certainly the propagandists of al-Qaida must have been pleased to hear an ally of President Bush confirm that the United States is engaged in a worldwide crusade, for that is how such words are interpreted by Muslims. (And since when does American policy prefer nations for adopting any “official religion,” Christian or otherwise?) This was rhetorical blundering worthy of the Bush White House.

Now, Sen. McCain is not alone among politicians and pundits in exploiting the Georgian crisis to promote an exhausted ideology. Nor is he alone in ignoring the impact of Iraq on our ability to defend our allies by means of diplomacy or force. From the editorial page of The Washington Post to the office of the vice president, much sound and fury has emanated, signifying very little except a shared determination to ignore reality. When Dick Cheney threatens the Russians with “serious consequences,” what is he talking about? What would the Bush administration or its cheerleaders actually have done if the Russians had pushed on toward the Georgian capital?

Without any prejudice to the cause of Georgia’s sovereignty or its democratic aspirations, the true answer is not much, despite the illusions that our policy evidently encouraged among the Georgian leadership and people. Blustering aside, there was never the slightest chance that Europe or the United States would come to their assistance with military force against Russian troops. There are many reasons to avoid such a disaster, notably the enormous Russian nuclear arsenal, the European dependence on Russian energy supplies and the cataclysmic effect on the world economy.

Even if we contemplated the use of force, we scarcely have the capacity after squandering our power in Iraq. We can hardly bring effective diplomatic force to bear, either, beyond the tinny echo of White House blustering. The Russians must have laughed as they watched Georgian troops depart in haste from Iraq — and cackled when the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations accused them of seeking “regime change” in Tbilisi. Are we telling them they cannot just invade a country they dislike, without international sanction, because they feel threatened?

There can be no doubt that Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses a challenge to the West, and to the next administration. It can be argued that Russian ambitions must be checked now to discourage Moscow’s bullying imperialism. It can also be argued that bringing the former Soviet republics into NATO only provokes the Russians into resisting encirclement by their Cold War enemies, and that we must engage Russia to cope with existential threats like nuclear proliferation and Islamist extremism. What can no longer be sanely argued is that reflexive ideology and confrontational bluster will secure our future.

We desperately need a new foreign policy that combines idealism with realism. And a president who doesn’t lift his talking points from Wikipedia.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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