McCain's Wrong on Russia-And So Is Obama

McCain's Wrong on Russia-And So Is Obama

Barack Obama has a lot to learn when it comes to dealing with Russia—but so does John McCain.

Unrealistic Hopes
by Paul J. Saunders


Senator Barack Obama loves hope and change. And it's easy to understand why-hope is a powerful motivator and change can often bring important improvements to America or to the wider world.

But turning hope into change isn't easy. Among other things, it requires considerable realism in assessing current realities, understanding what is simpler or more difficult to change, who needs to be involved to create change that sticks, and how change in one area might affect others. This is where Senator Obama comes up far short of what the United States needs in a president.

One recent example is the senator's recent statement on tensions between Georgia and Russia. Mr. Obama is correct that "only a political settlement can resolve the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia." Unfortunately, the rest of his statement is a confused combination of superficial and misleading analysis with unrealistic goals, framed by tired liberal sloganeering.

Senator Obama begins by condemning Russia for "violating Georgian airspace close to the Georgian capital." It is true that Russian warplanes crossed Georgia's internationally recognized borders. But Mr. Obama leaves out many key details, most importantly that the Russian planes were over South Ossetia. Why does this matter? Because Russian peacekeepers are deployed there under an agreement approved by the United Nations-and because the Georgian government has regularly threatened to use force to reestablish its authority there and has also detained and harassed the Russian troops several times. This is not to defend Moscow, which has hardly been angelic in its conduct in the Caucasus. But what American president would hesitate to send a few fighter planes across a border for forty minutes to demonstrate U.S. resolve in protecting forces deployed under an internationally recognized accord?

Next, Senator Obama supports "Georgia's right to pursue NATO membership" which he says "in no way threatens the legitimate defense interests of Georgia's neighbors." This is similarly superficial. It is obvious that Georgia has the ability to "pursue" NATO membership. Georgia is a sovereign state and can seek membership in NATO, the European Union and even the Sylvester Stallone fan club (where Mr. Saakashvili could revel in his enjoyment of bravado while limiting the consequences for others). And given Georgia's limited military capabilities, it's hard to see how its NATO membership would threaten anyone-or contribute meaningfully to NATO, for that matter. What is really important, however, is not Georgia's "right" to apply to NATO, but America's "right" to a vote on Tbilisi's application and Russia's "right" to decide that if the United States encourages Georgia to join NATO over its strong objections, Washington's view of U.S.-Russian relations is disinterested at best and hostile at worst. And, of course, Russia's "right" to make other decisions on that basis.

Notwithstanding his sensible statement about the need to find political settlements to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia problem, the Democratic senator's assessment of the conflicts is naïve and shallow. First, he states that Georgia must "resist the temptation to be drawn into a military conflict" (emphasis mine), implying that Tbilisi is a helpless victim of someone else's war plans. On the contrary, on several occasions it has been precisely Tbilisi that has threatened armed reintegration of the two territories (and likewise intimidated leaders of another renegade province, Adjara, in 2004). Senator Obama also repeats tired liberal calls for the "international community" to become "more active." But what is the "international community" and why should it be unduly concerned about events in Georgia? Georgia's neighbors may have some cause for worry, as the consequences of an armed conflict could spill over their borders, and the European Union and its members might share this anxiety. But why should the rest of the alphabet, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, become involved?

Senator Obama's statement that Russia "is not qualified to play the role of a mediator" because it "has become a party to the conflict" is similarly naïve, in two respects. Parties to a conflict may not act as mediators in Harvard Law School case studies, but in the real world they do so quite frequently and, at times, effectively. The most significant current case is the Middle East peace process, where the United States has been a mediator for decades while simultaneously declaring one of the parties, Israel, to be a close American ally. Actually, it is often desirable to have a major power connected to one of the parties as a mediator-such powers are often seen as able to offer guarantees to the party with which they sympathize and to apply pressure to that party to make or abide by a deal. On a more practical level, how does Mr. Obama think that as president he could simultaneously eject Russia from its role as a mediator and win Russian support for a settlement, especially if (as he also states) he seeks to remove Russian peacekeepers and replace them with a multilateral force at the same time? Does he think that any settlement could work without Moscow? This weak analysis betrays the senator's lack of international experience-and poor advice from his foreign-policy team.

If Barack Obama really wants to resolve the conflicts in the Caucasus-and to manage America's much-more serious foreign-policy challenges effectively-he will need to temper his hope and his calls for change with a big dose of reality.


Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center and a former Bush Administration State Department political appointee.


The Senator's Errors
by Brooke Leonard


When it comes to key foreign-policy issues, such as the war in Iraq, "Senator Obama doesn't understand," remarked John McCain during his interview Sunday with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "I'm questioning his lack, total lack, of understanding."

We've heard this from the McCain campaign before. Barack Obama is the idealist, completely lacking any real foreign-policy experience, who naively believes that dialogue can solve America's problems abroad. John McCain-the Vietnam vet and war prisoner, former Navy captain, ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services-has traveled extensively throughout the world and knows what it really takes to deal with America's enemies.  

But how much does McCain truly understand?

This question has popped up quite a few times recently, following McCain's references to the nonexistent "Iraq/Pakistan border" and twice to the country of "Czechoslovakia," which ceased to exist in 1993. These gaffes aside, his comments on "This Week" hinted at a lack of awareness of not only certain situations in Russia, but also of the potential consequences of his own stance toward the country. If McCain is the true foreign-policy expert, let's see how well he knows his enemy:


On kicking Russia out of the G-8: "Well, you have to take positions whether other nations agree or not, because you have to do what's best for America . . . and the world."


Though McCain compared his warning to Russia to "improve [its] behavior" or get thrown out of the G-8 to Ronald Reagan's challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall," the circumstances differ significantly. Reagan made his famous statement in 1987, a time when Gorbachev's policy of "New Thinking" in international affairs, stressing shared interests over ideological battles, had opened up new opportunities for the two cold-war rivals to work together. Today, unfortunately, is not a period of increasing cooperation and understanding between the United States and Russia, but rather one of mutual distrust and strained relations. And Reagan's calling for the destruction of the symbol of communism was a form of encouragement, a unifying appeal-not a threat to eject the USSR. from a key international forum.

The threat, by the way, is an idle one. Kicking Russia out is an unrealistic plan that no other G-8 nation supports. And the Russians do not take the warning seriously-they are simply irritated, not intimidated. McCain cannot bring about "better Russian behavior internationally" in this fashion-all he will succeed in doing is further alienating a country whose reaction to the United States ignoring Russian interests is by now well known: Moscow either refuses to cooperate with the United States on issues crucial to American (but not Russian) national interests, or it pursues alternative options that are often directly harmful to American interests, such as forging closer ties with Tehran. So while McCain's position on Russia may be good for Iran, it's hard to see how it is "what's best for America."


On the BP-TNK dispute: "[The Russians] have now thrown out the-or forced out-BP out of Russia."


BP is still in Russia and has reiterated its commitment to remaining there. Robert Dudley, the CEO of BP in Russia, has left the country-clearly under some sort of pressure resulting from the dispute over management control of the joint TNK-BP venture. But where the pressure is coming from is not entirely known. Lord George Robertson, an independent director of TNK-BP, stated at a recent event at the Nixon Center that he has no reason to believe that "senior levels of government are involved" in the dispute, placing the blame instead on Russian shareholders. Other speculators say it could be a combination of a genuine debate between the Russian shareholders and BP, the overall deterioration of the British-Russian relationship and Russia's policy of attempting to seize greater control over its resources. Without a doubt, there are legitimate and serious questions about Russian conduct-but the situation is far more complex than Senator McCain asserts.


On the Russian-Czech relationship: "[Russia] cut back on their oil supplies to the Czechs, because the Czechs made an agreement with us."


Russian oil supplies to the Czech Republic began to slow around July 4-before Prague and Washington signed an agreement for the Czechs to host a U.S. missile-defense system-and ended shortly thereafter on the orders of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Given Moscow's history of using its energy resources for political purposes, questions about its intentions are perfectly legitimate. But if Russia was firing a warning shot to the Czechs, this was a rather-strange instrument of pressure. Even Vaclav Bartuska, the Czech Ambassador-at-Large for Energy Security, has denied that Russia had a political motive in this case, observing "If the Russians wanted to push us to the wall, they would rather do it through gas." Once again, in a case where questions seem appropriate, McCain presents his interpretation as a fact.


On the UN Security Council: "[Russia is] blocking action in the United Nations Security Council on Iran."


Russia's record on Iran in the UN Security Council is far more complex than McCain suggests. Moscow has blocked some measures against its longtime partner, but has supported others. The Russians clearly do not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, and have taken a variety of steps to negotiate with the Iranians outside of the Security Council as well. George W. Bush has found these measures useful, noting, "It was the Putin government that said to the Iranians, if you want a civilian nuclear power program, we will support you in that; however, we will provide the fuel and we'll collect the spent fuel. I thought it was a very innovative approach to solving the problem. I strongly supported the initiatives."


On Prime Minister Putin remaining in charge of Russia: "I am confident-yes, I believe that he's in charge. And I don't think he would have chosen his successor, if he didn't think he would remain in charge."


McCain may be confident that Putin maintains control of Russia, but many observers-both in Washington and Moscow-are not. Most seem to agree that there now exists a power-sharing arrangement between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. Henry Kissinger, identified publicly as one of McCain's foreign-policy advisors, said in the Washington Post after a recent trip to Russia that he is "convinced" that the thought that Putin will remain in charge of the country is "premature." In fact, he "encountered no Russian in or out of government who doubted that some kind of redistribution of power was taking place, although they were uncertain of its outcome." What the power structure will look like in a few months or years from now remains a subject of heavy debate both within Russia and from the outside. McCain, however, sounds quite certain that he knows something that even the Russians themselves do not.


So how does the foreign-policy expert measure up on his knowledge of Russia? His overly simplistic answers seem to show, in the words of the Senator himself, "a fundamental lack of understanding."


Brooke Leonard is a staff member at The Nixon Center.