8/11/2008

Russia and Georgia: What Really Matters

Don Conley, a former speechwriter for Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, wrote an excellent column about the crisis in Georgia and how that should remind voters of what truly matters in this fall's election.

He cites Obama's responses to the conflict, which have been inconsistent at best:

"Obama's response has been all over the map, matching consensus global opinion. At first, he blamed both Georgia and Russia, then called for Russia to withdraw, now he's demanding an immediate cease fire. Events are in the saddle and Obama is going along for the ride--this matches President Bush's approach to the crisis, and that's not a good thing."
John McCain is not immune from Conley's wrath, citing his "bellicosity:"
"Unless McCain is willing to get the US in the middle of every armed conflict on earth--giving new definition to his promise of 'more wars'--a McCain Presidency would mean that we're at least going to enter a new age of foreign policy brinkmanship that will demand a military sufficient to fight these battles. That means either getting out of Iraq or reinstating a draft, because the military today is incapable of matching McCain's rhetoric."
These two passages underscore the importance of the office for which McCain and Obama are running. Elections have consequences, and these consequences concern matters of life and death. McCain, Obama, their surrogates, and partisan defenders may throw around misleading and petty terms like elitist, warmonger, Washington insider, risky, old, and celebrity. But there comes a point when voters must realize that the Presidency of the United States is perhaps the single most important political office in the world and that whoever occupies it should be competent, resourceful, pragmatic, talented, reliable, and strong.

It is easy to call both Obama and McCain out on their rhetoric regarding Georgia and Russia. In the case of Obama, if he is unable to stick to a position or changes it blindly to suit the moment, he will convey to the world that he is a weak and indecisive leader who does not command the respect of our allies or our adversaries. That is not good for our national security.

And in the case of McCain, belligerent rhetoric and sabre rattling must be matched by a military that is large enough and strong enough back him up. Warning Russia about "serious consequences" only to have Russia call our bluff because Vladimir Putin knows we don't have enough troops available to fight on a third front as a result of our continued operations in Iraq and possible military confrontation with Iran would send an equally disconcerting message that the United States is overextended and is vulnerable as a result.

The political impact of the Russian incursion into Georgia may be to place international relations back in the forefront. It helps push Paris Hilton and John Edwards out of the headlines and forces both presidential candidates to talk about foreign policy. This could be a jump ball in that McCain is more likely to be seen as a strong commander in chief while Obama is seen as more likely to improve relationships between the United States and the international community. Fresh off of his world tour last month, Obama has a little more street cred when it comes to the international arena than he had earlier. Even though he received very little bounce in the polls, the imagery of him shaking hands with foreign leaders may provide a latent benefit for him later on. And John McCain can contrast the celebrity caricature of Obama with the need for there to be a serious candidate for serious times. But Obama could counter that one reason why the United States' options are so constricted is because of McCain's "judgment" on Iraq.

Also, as both candidates consider their vice presidential running mates, this would seem to benefit Joe Biden and Tom Ridge. The former is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the latter is the former secretary of Homeland Security. Conversely, this international flare-up does not bode well for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty--all of whom are more domestic picks. Of course, the Benazir Bhutto assassination shortly before the Iowa caucuses did not provide any political advantage for candidates like Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson, so perhaps because Georgia is a far away place that most voters have never heard of, many voters simply won't care.

But let's hope not.

It may be August, which is typically a dead month for politics. Voters are having backyard barbecues, family vacations, and nights in front of the television watching the Olympics in Beijing. Hopefully they are paying attention to what is happening in the world right now too though because they need to challenge their presidential candidates to move past their generic vague talking points ("change" and "victory") and flesh out where they stand on issues that actually affect people's lives. What does it say when a YouTube video of Paris Hilton can get more than a million hits, but a video of a meaningful policy discussion concerning war and peace can barely get 10% of that?

Right now, this campaign seems to be reduced to a mere popularity contest in which both candidates are trying their hardest to say as little as possible without getting called out on it. If that's what November comes down to, then either candidate could conceivably win the election. But the nation and perhaps the world will lose as a result of it.

12 comment(s):

Brett said...

Obama has definitely not shown well on this - what his meandering has shown is that, at the very least, his foreign policy team does not include people with good credentials and knowledge about the Caucacus, otherwise he might have had some kind of formal response ready to go shortly after the crisis became an issue. Hopefully, he'll correct that mistake in the future.

Of course, this whole conflicts begs the question of why we are even bothering to build alliances in the Caucacus. The two usual reasons are to help secure Caucacus oil, and to deal with Iran. The problem, of course, is that the US is not particularly dependent on Caucacus oil (most of our imported oil comes from OPEC (namely, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela), along with Canada. The other issue is that there are other ways to deal with Iran (why encircle them when you have bases next door?).

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

man both dont know jack. Id probably more versed on the history and conflict than both combined and thats sad

Brett said...

Of course, if this thing all blows over, then McCain just looks extremely and needlessly belligerent to Russia.

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

I agree that Obama's performance with this crisis has left a bit to be desired. And so has McCain's. But it looks like voters are going to give both politicians a pass because Bush is still the president and his performance hasn't exactly been stellar either. It's sad, but it seems like voters simply don't care as much about foreign policy acumen as they should.

This crisis matters because other former Eastern Bloc nations and breakaway former Soviet republics are looking at the US and Europe and are deciding whether the West has their backs when it comes to defending them or if it would be in their interests to stay close to Russia even if they really don't want to.

Notice how that oil pipeline has entered the discussion. Are natural resources really the source of modern geopolitical conflict?

As for McCain's belligerence, I don't see why Obama doesn't just create an ad looping his "bomb bomb bomb Iran" quip over and over and over again.

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Torrance,

Yes, Obama, McCain, and Bush kinda look like the Three Stooges as they bumble their way through with their rhetoric and changing positions here. I'm more convinced that a lot of these politicians are simply winging it and leave the real policy heavy lifting to their advisers.

Khaki Elephant said...

Excellent post, Anthony!
It's hard to believe with Russia's military strikes, our energy woes and the Olympics against the backdrop of China's human rights violations that the best dialogue on the table revolves around Obama's celebrity and McCain age.

I fear you may be right. If we can't find depth now, what are the odds it will appear by November?

S.W. Anderson said...

McCain's response is a transparent bid to appeal to Bush's base and to nonpolitical types who tend to think foreigners who get out of line need a dose of shock and awe to straighten them out. It's just what I expect from McCain 2.0, the anything-to-win version.

I can hardly fault Obama for not having a brilliant instant solution for what's going on in Georgia and South Ossetia.

What it comes down to is, who provoked who? Is this a case of the Russians encouraging the S. Ossetians to start something with Georgia, so that when Georgia reacted, Russia could move in and show who's boss? Or did Georgia's president, who's had a habit of taunting the Russians, finally go too far — perhaps in the belief The Decider would ride to his rescue if things didn't go well?

I don't know the answer to those questions, which is why I've held off posting about it. I don't think Bush has a clue either. Cheney's response is as dangerous and dumb as McCain's. Condoleezza Rice might as well stay on vacation, for all the help she's been. And I'll bet the intelligence community doesn't know the answer to my questions above, any more than I do.

I'm not sure why the U.S. is expected to have an instant "solution" or impressive response for this problem, from Bush or from the presidential candidates.

This incident is taking place on Russia's doorstep, which is something the Georgians should've reckoned with. That they failed to do that is their screw up, not ours.

Anthony Palmer said...

Here's another thought:

Why isn't the public holding the current administration's feet to the fire on this issue? After all, George Bush said he could "get a sense of Putin's soul" and Condoleeza Rice is supposedly the expert in Russian affairs. But it appears that the White House is just as confused as Obama and McCain are.

This really bothers me because nobody seems to be taking the issue seriously. Russia looks like it's about to take over a sovereign nation and disrupt the economies of Western Europe who rely on Russia for oil and natural gas. After Bush's inauguration, we were impressed with his A-list team of policy wonks and veterans. But how is that turning out?

S.W. Anderson said...

I suspect the public has rightly come to regard the Bush administration as the most dysfunctional one ever when it comes to foreign relations (along with most everything else). So, people are probably just hoping we won't get bungled into another war.

As for Russia taking over Georgia, I certainly hope that doesn't happen. Russia has delivered its message loud and clear; the point is made. Anything further will just be seen, and resented, worldwide as naked aggression.

I don't see how disrupting Europe's main energy source would serve Russia's interest, short or long term. It would be like the manager of a McDonald's going around the parking lot, letting air out of his customers' tires.

Anthony Palmer said...

SWA,

It seems to me like Russia is reclaiming its sphere of influence, which has slowly been challenged by the West in terms of the increasingly democratic Eastern European countries and the eastern expansion of NATO. Looks like Russia wants to provide a counterbalance to the US. I seem to remember some alliance between Russia and China not too long ago. That could prove quite formidable, and the US is none too pleased.

By the way, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments here. Very intelligently argued.

S.W. Anderson said...

AP, I don't think it's a case of Russia reclaiming its sphere of influence so much as a case of asserting what it will stand for on its extremely long border.

One critically important thing for national leaders to do when their policies and actions are sure to affect other countries is to put themselves in the other guy's place and see what things look like. Saakashvilli obviously and foolishly failed to do that.

I wrote a comment on the situation over at Who Hijacked Our Country? that you might find interesting, although as I write this, that comment is still in moderation.

Re: A Sino-Russian alliance. This has been tried before, always ending with hard feelings on both sides.

It could be different this time, though, because oil and gas income gives the Russians wherewithal to buy a whole lot of Chinese consumer goods. Producing attractive, quality consumer goods in quantity hasn't been the Russians' strong suit, so the demand is there.

Meanwhile, China would no doubt welcome Russia as a dependable source of oil and gas, especially since some of that could be accessed over land, and therefore more securely.

The fly in this ointment for the U.S. is inevitably higher prices, for Chinese exports and for energy.

Oh to be Jed Clampett.

(Thanks for the generous remarks, AP. I'm going to go now, before my head starts swelling,(grin).)

Freadom said...

To change the subject a bit: I have to admit that the olympics and preparing for the fantasy footbal draft have placed politics on the back burner for me during the dog days of summer. Michael Phelps was simply awesome tonight.

Anthony Palmer said...

The Olympics have been a godsend in that they have taken some of the daily nonsense off the table. Sometimes it's nice to take a break. Enjoy the downtime now because once the Beijing Games are over, it will be a nightmare.

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SWA,

I guess people are looking at Bush, McCain, and Obama so much because of the view that America is supposed to be the world's policeman. There's also the idea that America should come to the defense of one of its allies. Because America is overextended right now, they can't do much of anything, and that is making our allies take notice. Are they now viewing us as a paper tiger? It's a shame the outrage hasn't been stronger because this is really a serious problem that could escalate into something far more ominous. And the inability of the current administration to adequately handle it (Pootie-Poo, looking into Vladimir's soul, Condoleeza Rice--the Russia expert) should serve as a stinging indictment of Bush's incompetence.

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