Sarah Palin says we might go to war with Russia over Georgia.
I don't really hold her responsible for this astonishing remark. With no foreign-policy experience, the Alaska governor was heavily briefed by McCain staff before her first TV interview last week. Presumably, she was voicing the position of John McCain.
She opined that, if Georgia joined NATO and Moscow attacked again, maybe America would have to fight the Russians. In other words, the world's two biggest nuclear powers would engage in battle, after avoiding such a catastrophe for the whole Cold War.
Palin's words reminded me how surreal this campaign has become. Her backers trivialized her last week with silly claims that an Obama remark about "lipstick on a pig" referred to Palin (it clearly didn't). I take her more seriously.
After what she said on Russia, I want to know when the Republican ticket believes it is appropriate for America to use force.
To be fair, both presidential candidates, and both of their running mates, have endorsed NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. This certainly plays to the emotions, given Russia's behavior in Georgia.
But are we really ready to go to war over Tblisi? No one but Palin has raised this possibility and, it is hoped, no one else thinks it. (The Democrats should clarify their thinking on the issue.)
In fact, Article Five of the NATO treaty, which calls on members to help one another if attacked, has loopholes; most of the European members would probably veto a war over Georgia.
Yet talk of war on Palin's part raises real questions about what the top of the ticket thinks.
McCain's key foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, founded a consulting firm that has received more than $700,000 to lobby for Georgia (Scheunemann stopped his lobbying work earlier this year). McCain is chairman of the International Republican Institute, which has monitored Georgian elections and helped train democratic activists there.
McCain says he wants to found a League of Democracies that would stand up to autocracies. Never mind that large democracies such as India and Indonesia would have little interest in an organization pitted directly against Russia, China and Iran. Most of the world is not interested in such Manichean divisions.
The question here is not whether Georgia deserves democracy, but whether America should use force to promote it. McCain's answer still isn't clear.
McCain has called himself a "realistic idealist" in interviews. Republican realists identify with people like former Secretaries of State James Baker or Henry Kissinger, who would use force only when vital interests were at stake.
Hawkish idealists want force to be used to promote American principles, including democracy, and bring about regime change. They support pre-emptive action even when there is no immediate danger. They believed America could remake the Middle East.
The neoconservatives who argued early on for an Iraq war fell into this category. McCain identified with them. We know how that war turned out.
McCain gets much credit for the change in strategy that improved Iraqi security. But the basic premise of the war was terribly mistaken. Today's Iraq is ruled by religious parties and is far from democratic. The war strengthened Tehran and undercut liberal Arab movements throughout the Middle East.
McCain as realist can make a strong case for caution about the speed of a U.S. pullout, lest Iraq collapse again. But a realist would also recognize that our time in Iraq may well be limited by Iraqi anger and impatience at occupation.
A realist would grasp that Iraq is not the central front in the struggle against jihadi terrorists. That front is now on the very dangerous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
A realist would understand that America must focus military resources, carefully, on a counterinsurgency strategy to curb Islamist terror groups in key locales. He would see that nonmilitary means are as important as force.
And a realist would know that America needs to cooperate with Russia on our most vital national-security interest - keeping nuclear materials and weapons out of the hands of terrorists who want to make bombs.
This is not the moment in our history for a democracy crusade. The Bush administration tried that; the next president will have to deal with the consequences.
Our country is entitled to know whether McCain will continue the Bush crusades, or whether he has a realist's grasp of the world. Palin's answer on Georgia puts that question front and center.
Palin is new to foreign policy. McCain's advisers may have misled her. What we need to know is where John McCain stands.