What a difference a quagmire makes.  Just five years ago the Bushies were happy imperialists, eager to project limitless American might around the world.  Now Bush is reduced to squealing petulantly while Russia invades Georgia.  Saakashvili undoubtedly hoped the first-term Bush was still in power; he didn’t pursue NATO membership and send troops to Iraq just to get sympathetic words.  But that’s all he got.  Even a Cold War style proxy war seems beyond Bush’s power right now.

Bush’s supporters have always wanted him to be judged on his principles rather than policies.  But if you don’t act on them, principles do no good– indeed, they actually do harm.  If Saakashvili hadn’t thought he had American support, he would have acted less provocatively in South Ossetia.  And since Bush doesn’t think his non-invasion policy applies to the US or Israel, the rest of the world just considers him a hypocrite.

Taking a longer view, the war is another depressing episode in the US mismanagement of the Soviet Union’s collapse, a saga that goes back twenty years and is as much Clinton’s fault as the Bushes’.  Americans believe in their system and have trouble understanding why everybody else doesn’t rush to adopt it (or something tolerably close, such as whatever they do over in Europe).  But again, good intentions do harm if you don’t stand behind them.  Democracy and capitalism don’t succeed immediately by magic, and if a country tries them without success, they react against them and we’re worse off than before.

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