As I wrote last week, the Georgian-Russian conflict has led to a humanitarian tragedy in the region that demands a careful and calibrated response–not a reaction that heightens existing geopolitical tensions. But the latter is exactly what we have seen. The conflict has morphed into a justification for a renewed cold warby the mainstream media, John McCain and his neocon brethren, and itthreatens to add fuel to a new arms race. Yet crises also present opportunities, and we should seize this moment to rethink our approach to national security and US-Russian relations.

Since the end of the cold war, US policies toward Russia have donemore to jeopardize the security of the people of both nations–andthose living in nations of the former Soviet Union–rather than enhanceit. It’s time to pursue an alternative, more sane and effectivecourse. Instead of expanding NATO to Russia’s border, shredding armscontrol agreements, and generally hyper-militarizing relations betweenour two nations, we need leaders who have the moxie to lay out a justforeign policy for the region.

There are three key elements to such a foreign policy:

1) Ending NATO expansion eastwards and not building US or NATO military bases in Ukraine or Georgia

2) The US and Russia jointly guaranteeing the political sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia

3) The US reviving the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and abiding by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s provisions.

The above certainly doesn’t describe our current, reckless course.

Indeed, at the height of the Georgia-Russia crisis last week, the US andPoland signed a deal for Poland to host ten interceptor rockets for the unproven,inaneand destabilizingUS “missile defense shield.” The deal included a permanent US base in Poland and the promise “that the United States would be obliged todefend Poland in case of an attack with greater speed than required under NATO.”

The agreement still must be approved by the Polish Parliament, as wellas the Czech Parliament whose prime minister signed an agreement to house the radar system (much to the chagrin of the Czech people).

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of BombScare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, told me the timing of the agreement with Poland is telling. “This is the old trick used by conservatives: use the crisis of the moment to support a pre-existing agenda,” he said. “The Iraq war was the most serious hoax [on the American people], but it was preceded by the push to deploy anti-missile weapons after the attack of September 11. President Bush used that tragedy to increase spending for anti-missile systems and to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty…. The fact that terrorists don’t have missiles and that the attacks had nothing whatsoever to do with the anti-missile systems didn’t matter. The tactic worked. The Democrats in Congress folded, least they look ‘weak.’ $60 billion and several broken treaties later, westill don’t have an anti-missile weapon that works and Osama Bin Ladenis cavorting safely in northern Pakistan. They are at it again, thistime using the Russia-Georgia conflict to justify a project they fear isslipping away. For the past two years the administration has beeninsisting that the weapons were aimed at Iran, not Russia. Suddenly,the line has shifted, led by Senator John McCain, whose foreign policyseems to have been completely captured by the neoconservatives. Theyhave left one dying host to infect another….”

Cirincione rightly sees this moment as a test of Democratic backbone–including that of presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama. “The USdoes not need a rush to deploy a technology that doesn’t work against athreat that doesn’t exist,” he said. “The Senate and the House Armed Services Committees have wisely restricted any funding for missile systems in Poland or the Czech Republic until both parliaments approve the plan and the proposed weapons pass realistic operational tests. Republicans may try to strike that language from the bill in theSenate this September. This is a test for the Democrats. Are theystrong enough to stand by their convictions? Will they expose thisplacebo defense and the hypocrites who push it? Or will we see thetraditional democratic dive on defense? September will tell us a greatdeal about whether the new Obama-led party is serious about charting anew course.”

Republican Representative Trent Franks gave the Democrats a hint of the kind of dangerous, militarism run amok rhetoric they are likely to be baited with in coming months, telling CQ: “This is not just about missile defense; this is about demonstrating to Russia that America is still a nation of resolve… and we’re not going to let Russian expansionism intimidate everyone.”

In response to the US-proposed missile defense sites in Poland and theCzech Republic, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to pointmissiles at Eastern Europe, according to the New York Times. Russia is also now movingshort-range missile launchers into South Ossetia.

What is needed right now isn’t more military equipment in a charged partof the world. Nor do we need the recycled, irresponsible, and ratcheted-up cold war rhetoric of John “Wayne” McCain. We need wise, levelheaded diplomacy–as is finally occurring in the North Korea nuclear disarmament talks. The Bush Administration squandered years onbelligerent, unproductive rhetoric before changing courses–and SenatorMcCain clearly wouldn’t do anything to reengage with the world in theway that is now needed. His temperament and recklessness are more like a perfect storm for worsening the military, political and moral authority that we have lost through the unilateral, immoral actions of the Bush Administration.

Senator Obama has wisely seconded a proposal–made by a bipartisan group of policymakers–that the US work toward a nuclear-free world and abolish nuclear weapons. But far more leadership is needed from him. We must end the growing militarization of US policy and call on Russia to do the same. America is at a fateful crossroads: will we be an empire or a democracy? McCain and his neocon radicalism make clear his reckless choice. Will Obama show realism and the courage to chart a new course and end our nationalinsecurity?