Whenever a crisis somewhere in the world involves Russia, members of America’s political establishment appear gripped by a collective psychosis.

The latest revival of Cold War rhetoric comes on the heels of Russia’s incursion into neighboring Georgia to counter its recent attack on the ethnically distinct enclave of South Ossetia.

South Ossetia, which was once part of the Soviet republic of Georgia, has increasingly asserted its independence since 1991, when several thousand Georgian troops invaded, unleashing barbaric violence on both sides.

It’s no surprise that armchair warriors like Vice President Cheney, uninterested in the region’s complex history, now bluster that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.”

But Democratic hawks like Richard Holbrooke are no less quick to raise the specter of the Cold War and declare ominously, “Moscow’s behavior poses a direct challenge to European and international order.”

It’s also no surprise that John McCain, whose chief foreign policy advisor was a paid lobbyist for the government of Georgia, calls for a militant response by the NATO alliance, formed in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.

But even the candidate for change, Barack Obama, calls on the international community to “condemn this aggression”—Russia’s, not Georgia’s—and advocates Georgia’s admission to NATO.

Such rhetoric is an almost Pavlovian reaction to ugly images of Russian tanks on the move, acting with trademark ruthlessness to stamp out their enemy and any innocent victims who stand in the way.

But let’s get real here. Neoconservative pundit Robert Kagan may assert that “the details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important,” but the details are unimportant only because he wants to blame Russia for violence unleashed by Georgia.

There’s no real doubt that Georgia began the latest conflict by launching an artillery barrage against South Ossetia’s main city on the night of August 7, though it claims to have been provoked by armed militants from the tiny region’s 65,000 people.

The fact is that Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, made reclaiming South Ossetia one of his top priorities upon taking office in 2004. Indeed, within months he sparked armed conflict with South Ossetia by recklessly trying to unseat its leadership.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, sent military advisors to train and arm his soldiers, compounding Russia’s concern about Georgia’s incitement of ethnic conflict on its sensitive border in the North Caucasus region.

President Bush next lobbied hard to seat Georgia as a member of NATO, an alliance Russia understandably views as hostile.

Imagine if Bush had succeeded in enlisting Georgia in NATO, rather than simply winning promises of its admission at some later date. Georgia would be demanding that NATO rally to its defense, and the war between Washington and Moscow might escalate beyond mere words.

It’s a safe bet that when President Washington urged the nation to “steer clear of permanent alliances” in his Farewell Address, he never dreamed that the United States would someday be entangled in an alliance that threatened to draw us into a conflict on behalf of the state of Georgia—the one on the Black Sea, nearly 6,000 miles away.

It’s an equally safe bet that today, Washington would be appalled at the specter of U.S. leaders urging this country to confront a major world power over a tiny enclave few Americans have ever heard of, while already overextended fighting two wars and sliding into a recession.

In November 2004, the International Crisis Group warned, “Should one side use force to seek its political goals, the other would respond in kind, and massive displacement of the inhabitants of South Ossetia would ensue. The war that would engulf the region would destroy the Saakashvili presidency and Georgia’s hopes for a bright future, while pulling Russia into another conflict in the volatile Caucasus region.”

Instead of heeding that warning, the Bush administration’s support fueled Saakashvili’s territorial ambitions. The result, as predicted, is a catastrophe for the immediate region with the terrifying potential to ignite a new Cold War.