Why McCain can't help Georgia as much as Obama could

Thursday, August 21, 2008

St George slaying the Dragon. 15th century cloisonné enamel on gold. (National Art Museum of Georgia)

An opinion piece today in the Washington Post made the point I've been making over the past few days, that simply saying you're in favour of something or another as candidate for president does not mean that you'll necessarily be able to do something about it if you actually win. I've been saying for a while that the two candidates largely agree on Georgia, and that McCain would actually be less of a help to the country as president because of his 1) hamfisted approach to diplomacy, 2) support for the war in Iraq, which makes the American military less able to respond to situations like this, and 3) lack of a sound economic policy, another factor that would tie the U.S. down.

Here are some of the best parts of the editorial:
Now that Russia has invaded Georgia, McCain can point to that speech and argue, "I told you so." And it's true enough that the Arizona Republican was early to warn that Putin's Russia was heading in a dangerous direction and that the West should be vigilant. But what sticks in my memory of that day in Munich was the flash in McCain's eyes before he made his provocative speech.

McCain likes zingers. We've all seen that mischievous look -- just before he shot a quip or sarcastic one-liner at GOP rivals such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. It's one of his appealing qualities, but in this case it worries me. Zingers don't make good foreign policy. They embolden friends and provoke adversaries -- and in the Georgia crisis, that has proved to be a deadly combination.
In the aftermath of the Georgia war, many commentators have argued that the mercurial Saakashvili walked into a trap by launching an attack Aug. 7 on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali -- providing the pretext for the brutal Russian response. That conclusion emerges from a meticulous reconstruction by The Post's Peter Finn.

So what encouraged Saakashvili to make his reckless gamble? Partly it was the ambivalent policy of the Bush administration, which told the Georgian leader one month that "We always fight for our friends" (as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in July in Tbilisi about Georgia's bid to join NATO) and the next month cautioned restraint. And partly it was cheerleading from the pro-Georgia lobby, in which McCain has been one of the loudest voices.
In the post-Cold War world, small countries often get into fights they can't finish -- hoping that big powers will come to their rescue. That happened in the 1990s with Bosnia and Kosovo, which hoped their desperate vulnerability would force Western intervention, as it eventually did. On the other side, the Serbs played the same game, hoping (wrongly, as it turned out) that Russia would intervene. The better part of wisdom sometimes is to tell small, embattled nations and ethnic groups: Swallow your pride and compromise; the cavalry isn't coming to save you.


Now, after the Georgia war, McCain should learn that lesson: American leaders shouldn't make threats the country can't deliver or promises it isn't prepared to keep. The rhetoric of confrontation may make us feel good, but other people end up getting killed.
If mere rhetoric alone were enough to solve military crises, George Bush's "bring it on" would have reduced the violence. Unfortunately, the world doesn't respond to mere bluster. Let's put an end to the simplistic "John McCain likes Georgia so as an Obama fan I'll take Russia's side in the conflict" point of view you can see on some political blogs right now. If you have legitimate reasons to take Russia's side (if you're into taking sides in conflicts, that is) that's fine, but attempting to see a conflict that actually has roots back to 1931 - when Stalin incorporated the Abkhazian SSR into the larger Transcaucasian SFSR and then the Georgian SSR - through the lens of Republican vs. Democratic just isn't going to work.


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