It should be said that with a decade of hindsight, McCain’s warning that Russian expansionism was a threat not just to its neighbors, but to the U.S. as well, seems much less alarmist than it did then. But in 2008, delivered at the height of the presidential campaign, it’s hard to imagine a statement less in tune with the political mood of the time. Americans, to put it simply, had little interest in being Georgians. Seven years into the war in Afghanistan, five into the war in Iraq, and with an economic crisis looming at home, the threat to Georgian democracy wasn’t high on the priority list for many Pennsylvanian voters. The remark, and the degree to which McCain fixated on Georgia that month, prompted eye-rolling and mockery at the time.
But for McCain, Georgians—not to mention Ukrainians, Kosovars, Kurds, Syrians, Libyans, and other groups he championed—were always a priority. Promoting freedom and standing up to tyranny weren’t just platitudes for him. Being a democratic superpower entailed certain responsibilities to stand behind your friends, as well as the understanding that aggression, if not confronted, would surely spread.