Only someone with a tenuous grasp on reality and a poor knowledge of history and the world could have looked into the flinty eyes of a one-time colonel in the Soviet KGB and ''found him very straightforward and trustworthy.'' That was newly elected President George W. Bush's pronouncement in June 2001, after his first meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin.
This past week President Bush got another look into the eyes and soul of Putin, as did the rest of the world, as Putin sent Russian T-72 tanks and Su-25 fighter-bombers roaring into the independent neighboring state of Georgia.
The Georgians, whose territory was part of the old Soviet Union from its inception, previously were known primarily for giving the world one of their sons, Josef Stalin.
They left in the general rush of various republics for the doors as the former Soviet Union fell apart and Soviet communism died of the weight of its own incompetence at everything except brutality, repression, mass murder and building weapons of mass destruction.
The newly democratic Georgians seemingly forgot that they still live in a very bad neighborhood with some very bad neighbors, not least of them Vlad the Impaler Putin's Russian Republic.
Encouraged by their warm relations with George W. Bush's administration and the weapons and military training the United States has provided them in recent years, the Georgians pulled the Russian bear's tail in one of their own breakaway territories, South Ossetia, and promptly got pounded.
That was their bad.
The Russians invaded and expelled Georgian military forces from South Ossetia, and then invaded Georgia itself, rolling up the demoralized Georgian army and sending it and a horde of frightened refugees falling back on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
The French thought they'd negotiated a cease-fire agreement, and so did everyone else except the Russians, whose tanks continued to roll and whose aircraft continued to bomb.
Crushed and virtually destroyed in the Russian response was the city of Gori, the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a.k.a. Stalin, which is about an hour by road from the Georgian capital. No country is prepared to step in and fight for or with the Georgians, least of all the United States, which has its own military tied down fighting two wars of our own.
Although Vice President Cheney bravely rattled a sword or two and George Bush was talking a little tougher to his old soul mate Vlad the Impaler, the simple truth is that there's not a damn thing we can do about the Russian invasion and perfidy short of nuking them. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made it amply clear that we aren't going to do that, or much of anything else beyond sending some humanitarian medical aid and supplies for the Georgian refugees.
The Georgian government made two mistakes - it took the Bush administration's rhetoric seriously and it ignored the Russians' bluster - and now both the Georgians and the world had best brace themselves for further Russian military action, economic pressure and diplomatic chicanery.
The opportunity to punish the Georgians is simply too tempting for Russia to ignore, so Putin will drag them back into Moscow's orbit, if not Moscow's ownership, and thus fire a warning shot across the bow of other breakaway republics that are considering membership in NATO or otherwise thumbing their noses at Putin.
Washington can respond only with tough talk. We can threaten to punish the Russians by expelling them from the International Monetary Fund and the Group of Eight wealthy nations, but with a fat bankroll bulging with Arab-size oil earnings, the Russians don't really need to care about this.
If there's any silver lining to these dark clouds, it might be that Bush and Cheney will be so preoccupied grumbling at Bush's buddy Vladimir and issuing empty threats that they won't have time to issue other threats or take some irrational action against the Iranians.
Things have truly come to a sorry pass when both our military and our diplomatic threats are as empty as our national treasury, and the Russians of all people can afford to laugh them off.
Bush and Cheney seven and a half years ago inherited control of the world's only reigning superpower, and in that short time they've squandered our military power, our international good name and our national treasury.
The only sadder sight in a week full of sad sights was a John McCain op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal with the headline: ''We Are All Georgians.''
Not really, senator. As campaign slogans go, ''Ich bin ein Georgian'' just doesn't cut it.