Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mac and the Bear

George Will recently reminded us of this great quip from a less than great British PM: "Asked in 1957 what would determine his government's course, Harold Macmillan, Britain's new prime minister, replied, 'Events, dear boy, events.'"

Many of us who follow political developments have been aware that the dynamics of the American presidential election could be radically changed if al Qaeda or Iran were to shake up world affairs. As with Bill Clinton in 1992, Obama's push for the White House depends on either a prevailing peace or a peace that ought to be. Now the Russian bear has started gnawing into the juicy little Republic of Georgia.

Suddenly Barack Obama's European concert tour looks especially silly, and the Democratic candidate resembles a little boy who has been playing fireman behind the wheel of a hook and ladder when suddenly the alarm sounds, and the man of flame-tested crisis experience lifts him aside and takes command. John McCain looks more the Commander-in-Chief now than he ever did.

Moreover, whereas McCain once seemed like the best we could come up with in this odd primary season, now he seems like the right man for the critical juncture in world history. The Russian invasion of Georgia may well be one of the most significant events of the twenty-first century, comparable to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1936 and Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in 1946 in response to Soviet activity in Eastern Europe. As the depth of the danger sinks in, Americans will ask themselves who the best man (or woman; that question's not settled yet) for the job is in its new dimensions.

This Russian imperial (what the Wall Street Journal calls "Bonapartist") land grab in Georgia is reminiscent of so many sad histories. In 1918, Imperial Germany lay prostrate after defeat in World war I. Less than 20 years later, Hitler's Third Reich annexed the Sudetenland in neighboring Czechoslovakia. And of course it did not end there. In 1990, the great Soviet Union, the mother of world communism, collapsed and its empire shattered across eastern Europe. Now, not even 20 years later, the bear is beginning to devour poor Europe again. Will the response in the West be any different?

I anticipate that President Bush will issue a declaration similar to that which his father issued after Saddam Hussein swallowed Kuwait. "This aggression will not stand." (He was provoked to this by Margaret Thatcher who, in a PBS interview, said "Aggressors must be stopped. Not only stopped, they must be thrown out!") Of course, expelling Russia is trickier business than expelling Saddam.

Now we see the different foreign policy approaches of the two candidates put to the test in real life crisis. Read John McCain's statement in response to the invasion.

He says, "Russian aggression against Georgia is both a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance to the United States of America."

He made sure to mention his personal familiarity with the situation. "I've met with President Saakashvili many times, including during several trips to Georgia."

Whereas Obama recently traveled through Europe "playing" president and talking about tearing down all sorts of metaphorical "walls," McCain draws our attention to a wall that could reappear in Europe if we mishandle these events. "Russia is using violence against Georgia, in part, to intimidate other neighbors - such as Ukraine - for choosing to associate with the West and adhering to Western political and economic values. As such, the fate of Georgia should be of grave concern to Americans and all people who welcomed the end of a divided of Europe, and the independence of former Soviet republics."

His plan is this:

  • The United States and our allies should continue efforts to bring a resolution before the UN Security Council condemning Russian aggression, noting the withdrawal of Georgian troops from South Ossetia, and calling for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory. We should move ahead with the resolution despite Russian veto threats, and submit Russia to the court of world public opinion.
  • NATO's North Atlantic Council should convene in emergency session to demand a ceasefire and begin discussions on both the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia and the implications for NATO's future relationship with Russia, a Partnership for Peace nation. NATO's decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision.
  • The Secretary of State should begin high-level diplomacy, including visiting Europe, to establish a common Euro-Atlantic position aimed at ending the war and supporting the independence of Georgia. With the same aim, the U.S. should coordinate with our partners in Germany, France, and Britain, to seek an emergency meeting of the G-7 foreign ministers to discuss the current crisis. The visit of French President Sarkozy to Moscow this week is a welcome expression of transatlantic activism.
  • Working with allied partners, the U.S. should immediately consult with the Ukrainian government and other concerned countries on steps to secure their continued independence. This is particularly important as a number of Russian Black Sea fleet vessels currently in Georgian territorial waters are stationed at Russia's base in the Ukrainian Crimea.
  • The U.S. should work with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and other interested friends, to develop plans to strengthen the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.
  • The U.S. should send immediate economic and humanitarian assistance to help mitigate the impact the invasion has had on the people of Georgia.
You should also read Barack Obama's statement on Georgia. It is hard to find a plan of action in the speech.
  • We should continue to push for a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for an immediate end to the violence.
  • There should also be a United Nations mediator to address this crisis, and the United States should fully support this effort.
  • We should also convene other international forums to condemn this aggression, to call for an immediate halt to the violence, and to review multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia - including Russia's interest in joining the World Trade Organization. ... (Then he digresses on the irony of this happening during the Olympic celebration of peace and unity.)
  • That means Russian peacekeeping troops should be replaced by a genuine international peacekeeping force, Georgia should refrain from using force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and a political settlement must be reached that addresses the status of these disputed regions. (This is stated more as a daydream than an actionable item.)
  • Beyond immediate humanitarian assistance, we must provide economic assistance, and help rebuild what has been destroyed. I have consistently called for deepening relations between Georgia and transatlantic institutions, including a Membership Action Plan for NATO, and we must continue to press for that deeper relationship.
Whereas McCain provided a thorough (for a short speech) historical context for understanding the invasion, Obama says only, "The relationship between Russia and the West is long and complicated. There have been many turning points, for good and ill. This is another turning point." He calls repeatedly on Russia to "end the violence," but there is no reference to Russia's regional ambitions and their threat to the wider world.

And there is this puzzling statement. "There is also an urgent need for humanitarian assistance to reach the people of Georgia, and casualties on both sides." How is it our responsibility to give humanitarian assistance for Russian casualties? Surely the oil-rich aggressor state can handle that.

He thinks that flattery or verbal assurance that we are no threat to Russian greatness will make a difference. "We want Russia to play its rightful role as a great nation..."

Obama is good with metaphors. In dealing with steely, wall-building imperialists like Putin, he seems ridiculously unqualified.


Anonymous said...

Spot on my friend; I especially like the image of Barack playing behind the wheel of the fire truck--too little for his boots, as it were.
And you may very well be right in saying McCain is the right man at the right time--it looks like we're heading into more "interesting times" geo-politically.

william said...

Dr. Innes,

The Germany metaphor seems backwards to me: Kaiser Wilhelm ultimately aimed for regional predominance, especially over France, whereas Hitler aimed for a totalitarian empire as large as imaginable. The Soviet Union was similarly totalitarian, and similarly aggressive. Putin, on the other hand, seems more like Wilhelm. Does Putin have an ideological objection to the existence of the United States? Or is he playing a power game, as emperors have always done?

George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and several other pundits seem to eager to slip back into the parlance of the Cold War. Ross Douthat, on the other hand, uses Krauthammer's own arguments to find a somewhat more tempered position (the substance is not so different, but the rhetoric is toned down).


David C. Innes said...

Yes, these are clear differences. Putin is not a totalitarian, but he is certainly an imperialist and not in the soft sense that American leftists use the word to describe the United States. I meant only to indicate the three great conflicts of the 20th century: WWI, WWII and the Cold war.

I see more wisdom in Boot than Douthat in the thread of links where you sent me. Putin's Russia is not an existential threat to the US, but he is a threat to free Europe which now has broader boundaries than it had in 1990.

Like any Russian leader, he only understands hardball. He will not respect, "We'll let you get away with this (for reasons I'm sure you understand), but--oh boy!--don't take another step!" That would be an open door invitation.