Georgia: The 3 A.M. Call for Obama & McCain

by Tony Romm
Special to iVoryTowerz

And then there was Georgia…. After fighting between Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia intensified last week, both the McCain and Obama camps released separate statements of condemnation.

But each candidate’s rhetoric, which epitomized their broader foreign policy objectives, was too symbolic to be insightful. Look closely at the statements both Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) posted on their respective websites to see why they failed their own “3 a.m. test.”

From the Obama campaign (abridged):

“I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict. Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war. Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected. All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia….”

If it sounds palatable, yet uninformative, that’s because it is. Replace Georgia and Russia with any encroaching Middle Eastern state or disenfranchised semi-autonomous group, and the value of Obama’s statement stays unchanged. And that’s bad.

To be sure, negotiation and mediation are crucial peacekeeping tools — first-track diplomatic tactics that have somewhat fallen by the wayside throughout the current administration’s tenure. But a little history could have bolstered Obama’s message (not to mention his credibility). Georgia has signed numerous cease-fires with Russian loyalists in South Ossetia, many of which — the most recent one included — have failed miserably. This is mostly because Russia’s track record with dissident groups or former Soviet states — think Chechnya or Ukraine — is so pitiful that the U.N. Security Council (over which Russia has veto power) no longer presses Russia to deal with the conflicts judiciously. In other words, this August fight is “an escalation to full-scale war,” not a symptom of one as Obama suggests, and Georgian territorial integrity won’t be respected unless the world community somehow demands it. To believe otherwise is to approach Caucasus affairs rather naively. Go back to bed, Barack.

The McCain campaign released an equally inadequate statement (abridged):

“…Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory. What is most critical now is to avoid further confrontation between Russian and Georgian military forces. The consequences for Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave… We should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia’s security and review measures NATO can take….”

Unless the hostilities somehow summoned the likes of Stalin from the grave, McCain’s response is undoubtedly alarmist. Of course, he’s not the only one; the media’s favorite news frame, especially during times of Russian antagonism, is obviously the Cold War — for better or for worse.

But McCain, too, could benefit from a closer reading of the news. By some measures, Georgia is mostly to blame for the renewed hostilities, not Russia. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili could not be so naïve to believe that ordering his troops to “retake” South Ossetia wouldn’t anger the Russians. President George Bush and Sen. McCain are right in one respect — the Russians are pushing conspicuously closer to Tiblisi (and farther from the Ossetian border) — but the blame is not solely on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitri Medvedev.

Furthermore, it is not the immediate fighting that presents a “grave” threat to stability — it’s the poor analogies that do. Russo-American relations have always been somewhat frigid, and America’s predisposition to label diplomatic shortcomings as an example of a chilly ideological standoff further ices bilateral relations. But if that isn’t enough reason for America to temper its rhetoric, consider the consequences of larger standoff. If America starts invoking NATO, as McCain recommends, and Russia feels strategically or ideologically cornered, Medvedev is bound to act aggressively. In the same way that former President Putin lashed out at President Bush’s proposed Eastern Europe missile defense system during the G8 summit, Medvedev is certain to liken NATO expansion at such a crucial hour to political posturing. And if America translates these attacks into a justification to accelerate Georgia’s ascension to NATO, the collective security principle — an attack on one is an attack on all — could catapult many states, the U.S. included, into open conflict with Russia. This scenario is unlikely, of course, but it does point to one common denominator: Only the West can metamorphose this conflict into a microcosm of a larger East-West struggle. Sen. McCain, perhaps you should return to sleep, too.

So at the end of the evening, both candidates fail their own foreign policy tests. Sen. Obama, as per McCain’s charges, clearly substitutes idealism for a lack of understanding, and Sen. McCain, to no one’s surprise, responds like a cold Reagan Republican who’s forgotten that the Berlin Wall fell years ago.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:
(Political graphic by AZRainman, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. To see more of AZRainman's work, please check out his blog.)

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