Gunfire has yet to trouble the quiet antebellum streets of this peaceful city, but can it be far off? With Russian tanks pouring across the border, it is surely only a matter of time before they roll through the leafy squares of this most sedate of towns, scattering the gentle, polite populace — who it must be said betray no sign of panic. These stoic men and women are accustomed to conflict, and they cast a cold eye on life and death. To judge from the folks sitting outside at the River Street cafes, drinking mint juleps and eating cajun chicken, you wouldn’t know there was a war on at all. But war is a silent and deadly animal, coiled in the bushes and ready to strike and your correspondent will remain at ground zero until the last — what? What other f-cking Georgia?

What have we learnt in the past four days, aside from the need to check your e-ticket very thorougly? The overwhelming impression is kinda interesting (read terrifying) because for at least two days there was effectively no-one in charge of America. There was a President, true, but any untutored observer, watching this idiot man-child cheering in the bleachers and passing up a little grab-ass with the beach volleyball team, would have assumed that he occupied a purely ceremonial office, like the Warden of the Cinque Ports. The Vice-President? In a bunker somewhere, presumably, resting between heart attacks. Speaker of the House, third in line? Nada. President of the Senate? Anyone home?

Apparently not. A US ally, and a one-time nominee for NATO had been invaded, and effectively dismembered, losing its coastal access in the process and was well on the way to being cut in two. The Caucusus corridor, Russia’s route to the Middle East had been re-opened, and the world had suddenly entered a new phase in the return to multipolarity, and the purported global superpower was simply AWOL. If anything served to confirm George W Bush’s place among the very worst of Presidents it has to be his failure to get back to Washington at the speed of light and treat the event as real. What could he do, one could ask? Military action is out of the question, nothing else is really going to make much of a difference, and Russia will do as it wishes. Nothing to be done.

But it is when there is nothing to be done that leadership comes into its own. In the 1920s, Irving Thalberg, the MGM producer and more or less the inventor of modern film production system was asked what a producer actually did. There is an engineer, Thalberg replied, trying to build a railroad across a mountain range. After endless surveying and calculating, the options are winnowed down to two equally good but equally risky routes. At that point the engineer sticks his finger on the map, says, we build there, and then sticks to his choice through thick and thin. That said Thalberg is what a producer does.

And it is leadership at its essence. By leading you instil in others the ability to perform above their usual best, to make a whole greater than the sum, even if it’s three parts bluff. When it is absent, the whole thing falls apart. And that is what happened in America this week. Just as in Katrina, there was this inexplicable, energy-sapping lassitude, this inability to function in the face of something indubitably real. A war you didn’t start is like a hurricane you didn’t expect — it simply imposes a new reality that must be dealt with, and can’t be spun, massaged, turned into talking points or all the rest.

But nature abhors a anyone anyone bueller bueller that’s right a vacuum, and into it rushed anyone the news networks could find to talk to, and most of the time that was Georgia’s slightly hysterical President Shakasvilli, who tried to rally the world by comparing the invasion to 1968, 1956, 1939 and would have got down to the rise of the Lithuanian empire in the 14th century if the networks didn’t need to air ads for sixteen different products to help you shit better.

Shakasvilli — I can’t be a-sed checking the spelling, someone ask Salushinzsky — sounds and looks way too young to be doing this and his prime minister looks like the bass player in the band Shakash is playing lead for. Plus he’s read and believed way too much of the neocons and imagines simply that a result can be got by calling this West Asian country a thousand miles east of Istanbul a part of “Europe”, and saying 1939 over and over. No-one really believes that Russia is doing anything other than dealing with a troublesome neighbour which foolishly offered itself as a NATO base in the Russian underbelly, and then leaned on its Ossetian minority in a search for “national unity”. It’s hard to think of a nation that’s played its hand worse, other than … um …

Ah yes, that’s right. Meanwhile in America you couldn’t even get a pretend President on the line, with Prince Barack on holiday, and delivering a couple of desultory press conferences, with a wimpy call for restraint followed by a “throw them out of the WTO” chaser, with no real traction given as how they were delivered a thousand miles offshore n all. With Dubya trying to get a Mexican wave started in Beijing this would have been the perfect time to dash back to Los Angeles and denounce the Republicans as unwilling to lead, all hat no etcetera. But once again this diffidence, this unwillingness to seize the frikkin moment seems to have overtaken him, leading once again to the conclusion that this is a man who doesn’t really want the damn thing. He’s already had the seal made up, and then taken down. Maybe he would be satisfied if he was allowed to take that home, like a fondue set on a gumshoe.

So it was all Meccan all the time, aided of course by the passkey US press — an insult to urine really — failing to directly throw him one question about one of his aides having a lobbying contract with the government of Georgia. Even Meccan gained little traction, throwing out some fluff about “we are all Georgians now”. Really? Damn, am I going to have to wear leggings and dance the quadrille? Shakshwatsit called him on it by saying today that he’d like more than words. Good luck. McCain’s quote, straight into the archive — “in the 21st century countries don’t invade other countries”. Marvellous.

Who’s going to do worse off this? McCain’s air of decisiveness is going to be exposed by the fact that not even he is psycho enough to suggest military action, but Obama has just given the impression that it’s not his thing and he’s only going to do stuff he’s interested in. God knows, but anyone sticking their hand up with some concrete ideas at this point would be welcomed. They say a country gets the leaders its deserves. By this measure, America is owed nothing. 

Peter Fray

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