Senator Joe taking a trip to Georgia isn’t going to quiet it. Obama still needs to shore up his foreign policy credentials, and naming Biden as his running mate would be a really good way to do it. Despite some criticism from Reader Thomas in response to this post, and disagreement with Reader Mike Reynolds in another forum, I continue to think that strong rhetoric and possibly even economic sanctions were the appropriate response to the Russian intervention in and escalation of the South Ossestia conflict. Even if all we could do was scold the Russians, we should have — because Russia, unlike Georgia or South Ossestia, figures prominently in the global balance of power and needs to be encouraged to exercise its imperial impulses through economic and cultural means rather than at gunpoint.
Obama’s initial response was to plead for both parties to set their emotions aside and submit to mediation. Ultimately yes, that’s where it winds up. Ultimately yes, we don’t have the logistical ability to inject ourselves militarily into the situation or any strategic advantage to direct military conflict with Russia. Ultimately yes, economic sanctions against Russia will fail because the EU won’t go along with them and ultimately, Georgia just isn’t that important in the great global game; it gives Russia a logistical advantage of a south-of-the-Caucasus base to project its forces into the Iranian theater if it wishes to, but that is more of a convenience than anything else, and Georgia produces oil but not enough to make a huge difference. All of those things are true.
But we can’t start out trying to resolve a shooting war by telling everyone to cool out and talk things through. You at least have to say “Knock it off!” in a nasty tone of voice first. A dispute resolve can gain some authority by focusing attention on himself, if the proper words are used and the proper tone is delivered, even if ultimately this person does not actually have any real power to change things. Three examples: Parents don’t ask their bickering children to sit down and be reasonable; they loudly and assertively insist upon silence, NOW. Judges faced with attorneys who won’t stop arguing about a dispute don’t mildly sit back and say, “Gee, any chance you guys want to submit this case to a mediation?” (At least the good ones don’t.) They say, “Save it for trial, guys, because I just don’t care which one of you is right.” A bouncer trying to stop an argument from escalating into a bar fight does not tell the arguers to calm down and restate their disputes in less offensive terms. He sticks his beefy self in between the two arguing guys, tells them both to shut it, and physically separates them. In all of these cases, if the disputing parties really want to, they can keep on disputing things.
In each case, the intervenor can step in and use some power to try and more forcefully end the dispute, but is not yet prepared to do so. Rather, the intervening party is attempting to use only language and words, to talk the disputants into behaving peacefully. Obviously, these sorts of disputes are not nearly as complex as a war. And warring nations are not the same as individuals trying to resolve their disputes. But dispute resolution writ large on the diplomatic scene is still dispute resolution.
And if we really, really wanted to, yes we could involve ourselves in some military fashion in Georgia. It would take time, effort, money, and a high tolerance for risk. But if something were sufficiently important to us, we would do it, and implicit in every international intervention we make is the possibility that we just might decide that this conflict really is worth the effort, time, money, and risk. That’s how we have credibility mediating between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s how we have credibility facing off against Iran. That’s how we have credibility in Korea and defending Taiwan from the PRC. If we really, really cared enough, we could inject ourselves into those disputes and implement our will. Yes, everyone knows that it is very unlikely we will actually go that far, but as long as the possibility is greater than zero, we get listened to.
To sum up: if all you can do to resolve a dispute is scold someone, then remember that when scolding, tone is important.
I found Obama’s tone (initially) to be inappropriately weak and too quick to admit America’s immediate impotence — it wasn’t even really a scolding at all; he seemed to shy away from even using strong language. (I give him partial credit for later finding stronger language that was appropriate to the situation and which mirrored the language coming out of the White House.) I like the idea of Biden as Obama’s veep because Biden gives me the impression of being able to project a stern tone when necessary, and if he’s at Obama’s side in the Oval Office, he may be in a good position to dispense advice like that because sometimes we may have to say unfriendly things to our rivals. I get the impression that Biden understands the process at a gut level, in a way that Obama seems not to.