One would expect Republican presidential candidate John McCain to react the way he did about this week's sudden violence between Russia and Georgia. After all, he counts among his advisors the neoconservative Robert Kagan, a tough-talking hard-line antagonist against Russia.
And McCain didn't surprise anyone; not only did he call for an end to Russian “aggression,” he also said confidently and provocatively that Russia's intention was to topple the democratically elected government in Georgia. He escalated the situation by saying that world history is made in obscure regions such as Georgia, and he put a layer of moral icing on the cake when he noted that Georgia was one of the first nations to make Christianity the official state religion.
Most concretely, McCain urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to set Georgia on a path to NATO membership, which is tantamount to a restart of the Cold War against Russia, which doesn't want NATO on its borders.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama stopped short of saying Russia has expansionist motives, but he, too, condemned Russian “aggression” across internationally recognized borders, and he, too, called for Georgia to be allowed into NATO. Kagan wasn't wrong when he wrote in the Washington Post that Obama's foreign policy positions don't exactly signal an about-face from the current administration, and while that pleases Kagan, it distresses us.
Both Obama and McCain failed to take advantage of the crisis as an opportunity to comment on the complex nature of the territorial dispute in Georgia. Yes, we know that one of the first rules of campaigning is that messages should be kept simple, but we don't have to like it. And when the subject matter is dicey foreign policy with potentially grave consequences, over-simplicity is dangerous business.
Neither McCain nor Obama said in pre-prepared remarks on the conflict that the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are home to people who don't want to be part of Georgia—just like the people of Kosovo didn't want to be part of Serbia, a fact that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has pointed out in his rhetoric vis-à-vis the United States' support of Georgia's clampdown on separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In fact, both candidates said it really doesn't even matter what the facts of the dispute are; Russian aggression can't be tolerated in any case.
We're not suggesting that Russia should be able to do whatever it wants in sovereign countries—any more than the United States should be able to exert its military might across international borders. McCain's comments about Russia's desire to topple a democratically elected government are comical and plainly ironic considering his support of the United States' toppling of the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, his neoconservative ideology that favors American imperialism and this country's recent history of waging covert wars in foreign lands in the name of fighting communist expansion.
The candidates' tough talk is especially problematic given the United States' degraded stature among the nations of the world. There was a time when the U.S. could wield its economic and military might as weapons of foreign diplomacy. But it has stretched its military to the snapping point in Iraq, and now it's Putin who's wielding economic power—in the form of oil and natural gas—amid its disputes with former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine.
What, exactly, does Putin have to be afraid of? It would take reinstatement of a draft to engage Russia militarily, and Putin knows that ain't gonna happen. We could bomb Moscow, but do we really want to think about bombing the country with the second most nuclear warheads in the world?
It's important to emphasize that we're not holding Russia up as an aggrieved party here. We know that Putin and his ilk from the KGB are still smarting over the breakup of the Soviet Union. If Russia believes the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been wronged by the Georgian government, it should appeal to the international community instead of taking matters into its own hands—like the United States does.
Now that Russia has joined the battle, Obama and McCain are right to appeal to the international community for a response, and to their credit, they both called for an end to the violence, and they say they desire a diplomatic solution. But although tough-talking oversimplification may score political points with American voters who see the world in black and white, it's counterproductive when it comes to more-important international relations.
And attempts at saber-rattling are kind of pathetic when your scabbard is empty.