By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Aides to Republican Sen. John McCain were scrambling last Thursday morning even as his plane was descending into Des Moines. Russia had escalated its aggression in the bordering Republic of Georgia, they told reporters, and McCain wanted to seize the moment.
On the ground in Iowa, advance men raced to erect a podium on the tarmac, just feet from McCain's plane. The Republican nominee strode to the microphone for the first of several blistering statements condemning Russia's moves, delivering his comments well before President Bush spoke publicly about the incident.
"Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory," he said, interrupted by the sound of jets taking off.
Since then, McCain's rhetoric has become increasingly sharp. On Tuesday, he called Russia an unrepentant combatant against a "brave little nation" and compared Russian "killing" in the "tiny little democracy" to Soviet aggression during the Cold War era.
"We've seen this movie before in Prague and Budapest," McCain said on Fox News. "And I'm not saying we are reigniting the Cold War, but, this is an act of aggression in which we didn't think we'd see in the 21st century. " For McCain's team, it has become the latest incarnation of what Sen. Hillary Clinton once called the "3 a.m. moment," an opportunity to showcase for voters his longstanding skepticism about Russian leader Vladimir Putin while emphasizing Sen. Barack Obama's lack of experience dealing with foreign affairs.
"You got a guy who is ready to be president on Day 1 who understands the world for what it is," said McCain ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, echoing another Clinton line. "The thing about Sen. Obama, he's playing catch-up here. His initial statements, quite frankly, didn't appreciate how bold a move this was from Russia."
McCain's public statements have highlighted his differences with the Bush Administration, which Graham said "has miscalculated the Russian threat" to its former republics, and are also designed to show off his predictions about Russian aggression.
"Sen. McCain has talked for years about the dangers of Russian policies in the way they conduct themselves and undermine the sovereignty of their neighbors," said Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy adviser, who noted that McCain has known Georgian President Saakashvili since 1997, when Saakashvili was a graduate student.
"There is a depth of knowledge, a breadth of knowledge and an extent of historical experience" that is greater than that of his rival, Scheunemann said.
Obama adviser Susan Rice, appearing on MSNBC's "Hardball" Tuesday night, accused McCain of responding irresponsibly. "Barack Obama, the administration and the NATO allies took a measured, reasoned approach," she said. "We were dealing with the facts as we knew them. John McCain shot from the hip, very aggressive, belligerent statement. He may or may not have complicated the situation."
Obama has confronted the crisis in Georgia in more modulated tones, initially sounding closer to Bush than McCain, but later condemning the Russian aggression in strong terms, saying there was "no possible justification" for it. Unlike McCain, he has also taken note of Georgia's military actions in the breakaway region known as South Ossetia. He supports Georgia's candidacy for NATO and has called for a review of Russia's application to join the World Trade Organization, but has not followed McCain in threatening to expel Russia from the G-8.
"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," Obama said during a break from his vacation in Hawaii on Monday.
Obama's advisers argue that he, too, has been prescient about the region's potential for conflict. In April, the Democratic nominee condemned Russian provocations in the contested Georgian provinces, and in July he urged Georgia not to be tempted into military action and called for an international peacekeeping force in the region. Since becoming a candidate, he has warned that the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq has distracted policymakers.
They said Obama's response in the last several days has been suited to the events on the ground. Obama's first statement calling for a ceasefire by both Russia and Georgia came when Georgian troops were still attacking targets in South Ossetia. As Georgia pulled back and Russia invaded Georgia proper, Obama's condemnation grew stronger and focused on Russia, his advisers note.
"He was not calling for equivalence [between Russia and Georgia], he was calling for a ceasefire to stop the violence . . . After Russia invaded, it was a totally different order of magnitude," said Stanford University professor Michael McFaul, the campaign's chief adviser on Russia.
Richard Holbrooke, an ambassador to the U.N. in the Clinton administration and an Obama supporter, objected to the suggestion that Obama had been late in coming to a tough condemnation of Russia. Obama and McCain are now more or less on the same page in decrying the aggression, he said.
"It is based on an exaggerated and deliberately misleading perception of Senator Obama's initial statement, which was issued early, while the crisis was unfolding," he said. "This is an attempt by people supporting Senator McCain to politicize a great international tragedy and it's not worthy of the dimensions of the problem, especially when both candidates have roughly the same position."
Obama's more nuanced tone may reflect the debate going on among his advisers, who say they must bear in mind the messy geopolitical reality that America relies on Russia on a host of issues, from Iran to nuclear proliferation to energy and climate change.
"Part of the reason we don't have leverage is that we don't have a U.S.-Russian relationship. It has been adrift," McFaul said. Referring to McCain, he added, "It's easy to say something belligerent about Russia. I'm no friend of Vladimir Putin, and cheap shots about tough talk are all well and fine. But what are you doing to actually make the situation better?"
Several Russia experts not affiliated with either campaign said they recognized that tough talk had become a political necessity on the campaign trail, but worry that U.S. credibility could suffer because the country does not have the leverage to follow through.
"This type of bluster is fairly counterproductive because it is a bluff, there's nothing we can do about this," said Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution. But he noted that "it has become a race to be see who can be the tougher. I can't see anybody suddenly stepping back and becoming a voice of moderation and calling for calm."
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.