John McCain took a lot of criticism for his hard line on Vladimir Putin’s Russia over the last few years from end-of-history believers and other optimists in the punditry.  Now that McCain’s assessment of Russia has proven accurate, the New York Times recognizes that his long-held positions suddenly have a lot more credibility:

Mr. McCain has called for expelling what he has called a “revanchist Russia” from meetings of the Group of 8, the organization of leading industrialized nations. He urged President Bush — in vain — to boycott the group’s meeting in St. Petersburg in 2006. And he has often mocked the president’s assertion that he got a sense of the soul of Vladimir V. Putin, who was then Russia’s president and is now its prime minister, by looking into his eyes. “I looked into his eyes,” Mr. McCain said, “and saw three letters: a K, a G and a B.”

His hard line has been derided as provocative, and possibly dangerous, by some so-called realist foreign policy experts, who warn that isolating Russia would do little to encourage it to change. But others, including neoconservatives who deem promoting democracy a paramount goal, see Mr. McCain’s position as principled, and prescient. Now, with Russia moving forcefully into Georgia as Mr. McCain seeks the presidency, his views are being scrutinized as never before through the prism of Russia’s invasion.

For Mr. McCain, the conflict came after months of warnings about the situation in Georgia. Mr. McCain befriended Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, over the course of several trips there, and even nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 (in a letter that was co-signed by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York).

And his opponent? Looking less credible:

While Mr. McCain has long called for excluding Russia from the Group of 8, and isolating it on the world stage, his probable Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, has made clear he favors more engagement with Russia (even as he speaks of reviewing relationships with Russia, including its interest in joining the World Trade Organization).

To give some credit to Barack Obama, he has shifted his position in the last few days as events unfolded. He now favors NATO membership for Georgia, but unfortunately, the time for that has probably passed. The time to add Georgia to NATO was before Russia invaded, not after.  If Russia withdraws at all from Georgia, it will almost certainly extract a concession from Tbilisi that it will not seek NATO membership.

This shows why experience matters in the White House.  Getting these issues wrong costs lives and risks freedom for entire nations.  The strange, ahistorical, and naïve idea that talk alone — without some threat of consequences, be they economic or otherwise — can defend freedom has the charm of never having worked once in the history of human civilization.  Even worse, misjudging one’s opponents on the world stage means that “engagement” without strategic insight will always redound to the benefit of the opponent.

No one wants war with Russia, but we could have and should have realized the nature of Vladimir Putin and his efforts to create a new Russian Empire years ago.  We could have responded by cutting off Western financial support to Putin’s new regime when it mattered and isolated them diplomatically by inviting the free nations of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.  John McCain wanted just that, and almost no one listened.  Now, the Georgians have to pay the price for Western credulity.

Update: The Chicago Sun-Times: “McCain, not Obama, was right about Georgia.”