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.