It’s now hard to remember that, when the Bush administration arrived in office in 2000, its hardcore members were all old Cold Warriors who hadn’t given up the ghost. If the Soviet Union no longer existed, they were still quite intent on rolling back what was left of it, stripping off Russia’s "near abroad," encircling it militarily, and linking various of its former Eastern European satellites and socialist republics to NATO, as well as further penetrating and, after 2001, deploying troops to the oil-rich former SSRs of Central Asia.
As Stephen Cohen wrote in a pathbreaking piece in the Nation, "The New American Cold War," back in 2006, even as the Bush administration began to claim that the U.S. had an overriding national interest in scores of nations around the planet (including Iraq and Iran), there was "a tacit… U.S. denial that Russia [had] any legitimate national interests outside its own territory, even in ethnically akin or contiguous former republics such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia." As had been true in the 1990s under the Clinton administration, the new administration was eager to kick a former superpower when it was down on its luck and just beginning to emerge from its era of "catastroika."
While George Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and declared him a soulmate, his vice president and various neocon allies were spoiling for a fight. And this isn’t exactly ancient history either. As David Bromwich pointed out recently in a canny piece at the Huffington Post, Cheney essentially threw down the gauntlet to Russia in a speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, in May 2006 in which he "threatened Russia with a new Cold War if Russia did not capitulate to American demands of cheap oil for Russia’s pro-American neighbors."
How the worm turns. A very energy-rich worm, as it happens, at a time when control over energy resources and their delivery is what makes the world spin. The events in Georgia this August, analyzed by Michael Klare, author of the new book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (which explains just how the world turns), were but another reminder that the officials of the Bush administration have proven bush leaguers when it comes to assessing how power really works in the world. In his latest piece, "Putin’s Ruthless Gamble," he concludes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is now "the reigning Grand Master of geostrategic chess" with "the Bush team turning out to be middling amateurs, at best." They were, from the beginning, fantasists in love with the supposedly unique power of the American military to cow the planet. For all the talk now about being at the beginning of the Cold War (Act II), this is also fantasy, as well as "home front" spin in an election year, and manna, of course, for worried U.S. arms makers. (The brief war in Georgia, reported the Wall Street Journal, was seen by some Wall Street stock analysts as "a bell-ringer for defense stocks.")
Right now, the Bush administration continues to have its hands militarily more than full just handling a low-level war in Iraq and a roiling one in the backlands of Afghanistan (and Pakistan). At the moment, it couldn’t fight a "new Cold War" if it wanted to. Not only is the world no longer America’s backyard, but for much of the world, when an American president says, "Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the twenty-first century," and the Republican Party candidate for president adds, "But in the twenty-first century, nations don’t invade other nations" — as each did in regard to the Russian war in Georgia — it’s only an indication of just how out of touch they are. (At least UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was careful to qualify his version of this statement geographically: "The days of overthrowing leaders by military means in Europe — those days are gone.")
For all their bluster, they now find themselves strangely powerless in a world that is increasingly anything but "unipolar."