IF THE UNITED STATES thinks it can attack Iraq, says Vladimir Putin, then we think Russia can attack Georgia, our little neighbor that is causing us so much trouble because Chechen rebel fighters are taking refuge there.
There is no parallel whatsoever, says the State Department.
But the Georgians are harboring Islamic terrorists, say the Russians.
Georgia is America's best friend in the Caucasus, says the State Department, but, well, yes, there are al-Qaida terrorists there, in the Pankisi Gorge up by the border. We'll help the Georgians get rid of them.
Not so fast, say the Georgians. We don't have any foreign terrorists here.
But you do have Chechens, say the Russians.
Maybe, maybe not, say the Georgians.
Forget it, say the Russians, we'll just go in and clear them out ourselves.
Uh, straighten this out, guys, say the Americans, because we have Green Berets in Georgia and no wish to get tangled up in a war in the Caucasus, and even though Georgia is our best, best friend, the Russians are our friends, now, too.
Fine, we'll send the Chechens back to Russia, say the Georgians. Let us handle it.
This week, 19 people were killed by a terrorist bomb in Grozny, say the Russians. We can't tolerate Chechen terrorists hiding out in the Pankisi, and we strongly doubt your ability to round them up.
Chechnya is your war and your problem, say the Georgians. You've made a mess of it. Are you sure you want to spread it here?
Well, say the Russians, the leaders of one of your own regions, South Ossetia, have appealed to us to intervene to save them from Chechen terrorist aggression.
What? There aren't any Chechens in Ossetia, say the Georgians. That's ridiculous and just an excuse for Russian interference in our internal affairs.
It's absolutely untrue that we plan to invade Georgia, say Russian generals. Unless we need to, says Russia's defense minister.
We're sure America doesn't want to abandon Georgia, its plucky friend so close to Caspian Sea oil, say the Georgians.
We're sure America doesn't want to help Islamic bandits, say the Russians. We're just doing our bit in the war on terrorism.
We hope Americans don't want to get mixed up in the continued extermination of Chechens, many thousands of whom have been killed though they had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, say critics of the war there - Islamic, Russian and otherwise.
In a murky and deadly part of the world, the United States is trying to be cautious but comes across as hypocritical and eyes-averted, which might make things worse, say those who worry about a disaster in the Caucasus.
Let's talk about Iraq, says the White House.