- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

OP-ED:

Bold, daring and risky! Those words surely apply to John McCain and his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice- presidential running mate. But, ironically, they also apply to Vladimir Putin and the Russian response in Georgia. And, as in war, these words can lead to catastrophic disaster or to winning medals.

We condemn Mr. Putin. But consider what Mr. Putin has done for us. In one fell swoop, Mr. Putin may have single handedly saved Europe‘s, America’s and, of course, NATO’s collective bacon. No one in the West, from George W. Bush to Nicholas Sarkozy, has been able to accomplish a similar feat.

Before Russian intervention into Georgia, Europe, the United States and NATO were adrift in the post-Soviet era without an overwhelming or unifying threat around which to rally the Free World. The Bush administration tried to substitute September 11, the global war on terror and the democratization of autocratic states as strategic surrogates and replacement threats for holding the Western alliance together. The first resulted in NATO’s deployment to Afghanistan where conditions are deteriorating by the moment, creating profoundly powerful centrifugal forces that could wreck the alliance. And the latter two have been firmly rejected by much of Europe.

Most will say that crediting Mr. Putin with anything is irresponsible. Vlad not only has become stroppy and prickly towards the West. He is now downright hostile and dangerous. No matter who provoked whom, the Russian advance into Georgia has been viewed here as a premeditated over-reaction in which excessive force was blatantly used to make a political point - don’t mess with Moscow. And the “annexation” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia reminded many of Hitler’s aggression in the 1930’s.

But these are exactly the reasons why Mr. Putin deserves a medal. NATO was on the ropes. Created in 1949 as a military alliance to counter the real military threat posed by the Soviet Union, NATO has been struggling to redefine itself since the implosion of the “evil empire” nearly 20 years ago. The foray into Afghanistan was proving to be more than NATO could handle, with many European members looking to cut their losses.

At the same time, Western defense companies were growing desperate. Fighting insurgents and terrorists is a far different matter than facing the combined might of the Red Army. F-22 stealth fighter jets, M-1 tanks and nuclear submarines in this era of “asymmetric” war against individuals or very small units and not well-defined formations and fleets are not what is needed. The fact is that big bucks for these expensive weapons systems are not so necessary in hunting al Qaeda members hiding in caves and suicide bombers in crowds of people or building institutions in far away places that lead to peaceful and prosperous societies.

On this matter of future planning, the Pentagon was deeply divided. How much capacity should go into so-called “small wars” such as are being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan or into “big wars” against so-called “peer competitors” such as China or Russia in which traditional armies were arrayed against other armies? No one had a good answer.

Mr. Putin resolved these dilemmas. Russia’s attack into Georgia has now not only raised the specter of a new “cold war.” Europe is being forced to reconsider its attitude towards Russia, direct territorial defense and, heaven forefend, even spending more money on its armed forces.

Thank goodness because NATO can return to the comfortable status of a military alliance directed against a military threat in Europe. Good-bye to the need for expeditionary forces to be sent to distant and deadly locations such as Afghanistan. Defense companies are spared from tumbling revenues. Big-ticket weapons systems are back. And the Pentagon is spared fierce debate over whether to plan for big or for small wars.

Somewhere, where awards for medals are processed, there must be a curmudgeon specifically charged with playing devil’s advocate, much as in Rome the same process applies to determining sainthood. That person should begin with the recognition that Western Europe has a population of about 350 million, a GDP close to $15 trillion and two nuclear-weapon states. Added to 300 million Americans and an equal GDP, the West has nearly a combined total of 700 million inhabitants and GDP of about $30 trillion, not to mention the most powerful nuclear forces in the world.

And poor Russia - a shrinking population of 140 million people and a GDP that is 5 or 6 percent of the West’s, never mind a shared border with China. Unfriendly maybe, but a real enemy no. Still, don’t count Mr. Putin out for giving the West an adversary it does not need. And that, in this crazy day and age, may be worthy of a medal!

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.