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What Georgia Tells Us About Obama and McCain

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The crisis in Georgia has revealed a great deal about both candidates for president. In particular, the approach they each took in the days immediately after August 8th were quite informative.

Senator McCain was decisive, quick to condemn what he termed "Russian aggression," saying that it was "a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance to the United States... a clear violation of international law" and called on Russia to "immediately and unconditionally cease operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory."

For his part, Senator Obama, reacted thoughtfully, condemning "the outbreak of violence in Georgia," urging "an immediate end to armed conflict." He added, "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation.... Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected."

The McCain camp termed Obama's position "naïve," "weak," and "appeasement." Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy advisor, criticized Obama's comments calling for both sides to show restraint, stating that McCain "is clearly willing to note who he thinks is the aggressor here."

The Obama campaign responded, defending their own position as "measured" and "nuanced," and accusing McCain of being irresponsible and provocative. Susan Rice, a Senior Obama foreign policy advisor, noted that Obama's position tracked that of the administration and U.S. NATO allies. "We were dealing with the facts as we knew them. John McCain shot from the hip [with a] very aggressive, belligerent statement." Said another Obama advisor, the "temperature of your rhetoric isn't a measure of your commitment to Georgian sovereignty."

As events unfolded and the disproportionate nature of Russia's actions became clear, Obama, like the Administration and NATO allies, became more critical of Russia, demanding an immediate end to hostilities and its withdrawal from Georgian territory, and called for the replacement of Russian peacekeeping troops with an international force.

McCain also went further. He reiterated his position, calling for Russia to be removed from the G-8, and, for emphasis, has in recent days consistently referred to that group as the G-7. He also now calls for the U.S. to reject Russia's application to join the WTO, and warns that Russia's behavior in Georgia could represent a return to "a divided Europe."

While McCain offers his "strong stand" as proof of his readiness to lead, others aren't so sure. Some regional experts have noted that, just two months ago, in a major foreign policy address, McCain discussed the importance of engaging Moscow in nuclear arms reduction talks and in helping to restrain Iran. How, they ask, could both of these critical objectives be met by ostracizing Russia?

At the same time, there have been concerns raised that McCain's closeness to Georgia and its president may, in fact, have clouded his judgment. McCain continually refers to the Georgian President as "my friend Misha," and notes that, since the crisis began, they have spoken on the phone several times a day. And, in an emotional address on August 14th, he told a cheering Pennsylvania crowd, "Today we are all Georgians." It has also been revealed that Scheunemann has, until recently, been a paid lobbyist for the Georgian government. His two-man firm has recorded almost a million dollars in receipts from the Georgian government since 2004, with almost $300,000 coming during the very time period when Scheunemann was serving as a paid McCain advisor.

All of this has raised questions about whether or not, as a result of this too-close embrace, Saakashvili had unreasonable expectations of U.S. support, causing him to make a strategic miscalculation in approaching this conflict.

Obama, like McCain, has long-supported Georgia's entry into NATO, and expressed concern about Russian ambitions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nevertheless, on July 23rd, Obama noted that only a political settlement can resolve the conflicts; and, while he called on Russia to roll back its aggressive actions, also called on the Georgian government to "resist the temptation to be drawn into military conflict."

In assessing both candidates, one observer noted that McCain's position could be seen as being "in line with the moral clarity and American exceptionalism projected by President George W. Bush's first term" -- i.e., hard-line neo-conservative and confrontational. (Personally, I find McCain's glibness to be disconcerting, especially when coupled with his absolute certainty -- a dangerous mix.) Obama, on the other hand, has taken a position, on this crisis, more in line with the current occupant of the White House (the "kinder, gentler" George W. Bush) with his newfound appreciation for diplomacy.

The conflict between Russia and Georgia did not begin on August 8th, and it won't end anytime soon. Bluster will not push the Russians back, nor will (nearly empty) threats of retaliation. And, as we learned in Iraq, there's an enormous difference between being tough and certain, and smart and thoughtful. The former makes good sound bites, and leads to chaos.

Given a choice, if the phone rings in the White House at 3 a.m., I'd rather have the smart guy answering the phone and hope the tough guy stays asleep.