When the North Caucasus slid into war Thursday night, it presented Senators John McCain and Barack Obama with a true “3 a.m. moment,” and their responses to the crisis suggested dramatic differences in how each candidate, as president, would lead America in moments of international crisis.
While Obama offered a response largely in line with statements issued by democratically elected world leaders, including President Bush, first calling on both sides to negotiate, John McCain took a remarkably—and uniquely—more aggressive stance, siding clearly with Georgia’s pro-Western leaders and placing the blame for the conflict entirely on Russia.
The abrupt crisis in an obscure hotspot had the features of the real foreign policy situations presidents face—not the clean hypotheticals of candidates’ white papers and debating points.
Russia, has long attempted to reclaim now sovereign parts of the former Soviet Union, stoking conflicts in the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are universally recognized to be Georgian soil. They’ve also used the ensuing military tensions to set back Georgia’s bid to enter NATO.
But Georgia appears to have sparked the conflict by marching on the South Ossetian capital as Russia’s powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, headed to Beijing for the Olympic Games. Russia, in turn, welcomed the conflict, launching a large-scale attack on its smaller neighbor and sending tanks across its border.
Both American candidates back Georgia’s sovereignty and its turn toward the West. But their first statements on the crisis revealed differences of substance and style.
Obama’s statement put him in line with the White House, the European Union, NATO, and a series of European powers, while McCain’s initial statement—which he delivered in Iowa and ran on a blog on his Web site under the title “McCain Statement on Russian Invasion of Georgia,”—put him more closely in line with the moral clarity and American exceptionalism projected by President Bush’s first term.
A McCain advisor suggested Obama’s statement constituted appeasement, while Obama’s camp suggested that McCain was being needlessly belligerent and dangerously quick to judge a complicated situation.
“I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict,” Obama said in a written statement. “Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war. Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected.”
Obama added briefly that the international community should get involved. More than an hour later, as more details of Russia’s incursion into Georgia emerged, he cited Russia more directly: “What is clear is that Russia has invaded Georgia’s sovereign—has encroached on Georgia’s sovereignty,” he told reporters in Sacramento.
McCain’s statement was longer, more detailed, and more confrontational.
"[T]he news reports indicate that Russian military forces crossed an internationally recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia. Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.
“The government of Georgia has called for a ceasefire and for a resumption of direct talks on South Ossetia with international mediators. The U.S. should immediately work with the EU and the OSCE to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to reverse this perilous course that it has chosen.”
John McCain’s top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, defended McCain’s direct criticism of Russia in the early hours of the crisis.
"Senator McCain is clearly willing to note who he thinks is the aggressor here,” he said, dismissing the notion that Georgia’s move into its renegade province had precipitated the crisis. "I don't think you can excuse defend explain or make allowance for Russian behavior because of what is going on in Georgia.”
He also criticized Obama for calling on both sides to show “restraint,” and suggested the Democrat was putting too much blame on the conflict’s clear victim.
“That's kind of like saying after Saddam, Hussein invaded Kuwait, that Kuwait and Iraq need to show restraint, or like saying in 1968 [when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia] ...that the Czechoslovaks should show restraint,” he said.
A foreign policy advisor for Obama, Ben Rhodes, said Obama was deliberately measured in response to the conflict, balancing his disapproval of Russia’s “troubling behavior in its near-abroad region” with “the fact that we have to deal with Russia to deal with our most important national security challenges.”
Rhodes declined to discuss McCain’s statement directly, but indirectly criticized it.
"The temperature of your rhetoric isn't a measure of your commitment to Georgian sovereignty,” he said, noting that the two candidates’ statements shared a substantive commitment to Georgia’s borders. “You don't want to get so far in front of a situation that you're feeding the momentum of an escalation.”
Critics of McCain’s stance said he’d imposed ideology on a complicated situation, in which both sides bear some blame.
“McCain took an inflexible approach to addressing this issue by focusing heavily on one side, without a pragmatic assessment of the situation,” said Mark Brzezinski, a former Clinton White House official and an informal advisor to Obama.
“It’s both side’s fault—both have been somewhat provocative with each other,” he said.
A fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Ariel Cohen, by contrast, praised McCain’s statement as “robust and tough.”
The candidates’ stances also reflected their broader goals in the region. Obama, Rhodes noted, has argued that the American interest in controlling nuclear material in the former Soviet Union and in other national security concerns means that the country should maintain a constructive relationship with Russia, even when Russia mistreats its population and threatens its neighbors.
McCain, meanwhile, has offered more sticks than carrots, and suggested that Russia will respond primarily to American toughness and resolve. He’s also called for Russia to be expelled from the Group of Eight industrial nations, a move unlikely to be supported by its other members, but one that makes his disapproval of Russia’s conduct very clear. Friday, as the crisis unfolded, he reiterated that stance.
The conflict in Georgia also brought attention another complicating feature of McCain’s campaign: His ties to Republican operatives with extensive lobbying practices. Scheunemann was, until earlier this year, registered to lobby for the government of Georgia.
A public relations firm working for the Russian Federation pointed out Scheunemann’s lobbying past to reporters—a sign that McCain’s stance is not, for better or worse, being welcomed in Moscow—as did Obama’s campaign.
“John McCain’s top foreign policy advisor lobbied for, and has a vested interest in, the Republic of Georgia and McCain has mirrored the position advocated by the government,” said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan, saying the “appearances of a conflict of interest” was a consequence of McCain’s too-close ties to lobbyists.
Scheunemann dismissed the criticism, saying he severed his ties to his firm and to his client on March 1, and noting that McCain has been a firm supporter of Georgia’s move toward the west, and away from Russia, since the Arizona senator’s first visit there in 1997.