WASHINGTON -- The swelling conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia is the first major real-time foreign-policy crisis faced by Barack Obama. He could not afford to be perceived as AWOL on this just because he is vacationing in his native Hawaii.
Obama has issued three statements since Friday -- one read before cameras en route to Hawaii on Friday -- another session with cameras Monday, where he interrupted his Hawaiian vacation to call for a cease-fire and international intervention. At first he urged restraint for both nations, but that changed as Obama, President Bush and rival John McCain recognized Russia as responsible for bringing the countries to the brink of war.
Obama, despite his largely successful trip last month to Europe and the Middle East, still needs to reassure voters of his commander-in-chief credentials. In Germany, Obama discussed rising tensions between Russia and Georgia -- a U.S. friend with 2,000 soldiers in Iraq -- with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama's Russian working group is led by Michael McFaul, a political science professor at Stanford University and a fellow at its Hoover Institution. I'm told that a number of Russian hands have been working nonstop since the first reports of fighting.
Obama's other regional specialists -- one being Mark Brzezinski, who was President Clinton's National Security Council Southeast Europe specialist -- is also part of that team, topped by Susan Rice, a potential national security adviser or secretary of state in an Obama administration.
Meanwhile, on the political side, the Obama team picked a fight, attacking McCain senior foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann because he represented Georgia in Washington. But that gave McCain's side a chance to say what, exactly, is wrong with helping a fledgling democracy?