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McCain's Focus on Georgia Raises Question of Propriety

For a presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain has been unusually outspoken about a foreign crisis. In fact, he beat President Bush to a statement on Georgia.
For a presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain has been unusually outspoken about a foreign crisis. In fact, he beat President Bush to a statement on Georgia. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)
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By Dan Eggen and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 15, 2008

Standing behind a lectern in Michigan this week, with two trusted senators ready to do his bidding, John McCain seemed to forget for a moment that he was only running for president.

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Asked about his tough rhetoric on the ongoing conflict in Georgia, McCain began: "If I may be so bold, there was another president . . ."

He caught himself and started again: "At one time, there was a president named Ronald Reagan who spoke very strongly about America's advocacy for democracy and freedom."

With his Democratic opponent on vacation in Hawaii, the senator from Arizona has been doing all he can in recent days to look like President McCain, particularly when it comes to the ongoing international crisis in Georgia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says he talks to McCain, a personal friend, several times a day. McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, was until recently a paid lobbyist for Georgia's government. McCain also announced this week that two of his closest allies, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), would travel to Georgia's capital of Tbilisi on his behalf, after a similar journey by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The extent of McCain's involvement in the military conflict in Georgia appears remarkable among presidential candidates, who traditionally have kept some distance from unfolding crises out of deference to whoever is occupying the White House. The episode also follows months of sustained GOP criticism of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who was accused of acting too presidential for, among other things, briefly adopting a campaign seal and taking a trip abroad that included a huge rally in Berlin.

"We talk about how there's only one president at a time, so the idea that you would send your own emissaries and really interfere with the process is remarkable," said Lawrence Korb, a Reagan Defense Department official who now acts as an informal adviser to the Obama campaign. "It's very risky and can send mixed messages to foreign governments. . . . They accused Obama of being presumptuous, but he didn't do anything close to this."

But McCain and his aides say his tough rhetoric on the Georgia crisis, along with his personal familiarity with the region, underscores the foreign policy expertise he would bring to the White House.

His focus on the dispute has also allowed McCain to distance himself somewhat from President Bush, who has been sharply criticized by many conservatives for moving too slowly to respond to Russia's military incursion into Georgia and South Ossetia, the breakaway province at the heart of the dispute. McCain's first statement on the conflict last Friday came before the White House itself had responded.

In often-lengthy remarks about Georgia this week on the campaign trail, McCain repeatedly talked of how many times he had been to the region, let it be known that he had talked daily with Saakashvili since the crisis began and made it clear that there had been times he thought Bush's response could have been stronger.

He provided a primer for why Americans should care about the "tiny little democracy" and tried to tie the foreign crisis with a domestic one: oil. Georgia is "part of a strategic energy corridor affecting individual lives far beyond" the region, he said.

"His statements have been very presidential," said John R. Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador under Bush who has since become one of the sharpest critics of the administration's recent foreign policy. "These are the kinds of things that the president should have been saying from the beginning."

At the same time, McCain also appears sensitive to going too far. In remarks both Wednesday and yesterday, for example, McCain explicitly ruled out direct military action against Russia, a step advocated by some hard-line conservatives.

"We want to avoid any armed conflict, and we will not have armed conflict," McCain said at a fundraiser yesterday in Edwards, Colo. "That's not the solution to this problem. But we have to stand up for freedom and democracy as we did in the darkest days."

McCain's ties to Saakashvili go back to the 1990s, when the future leader of the "Rose Revolution" was a student at George Washington University. In an interview this week on CNN, Saakashvili said he was "talking to Senator McCain several times a day."

"You know, I think he spends less time on his presidential campaign these days and lots of time on Georgia," Saakashvili said. "And I really appreciate that, because Senator McCain has been fighting for freedom of Georgia for many, many years."

He added a moment later: "And the same for Senator Obama."

The Obama campaign has been generally cautious in its remarks about the Georgia conflict, and the campaign yesterday declined to comment on the appropriateness of McCain's role. But earlier this week, Obama adviser Susan Rice said McCain "may have complicated the situation" with his early tough rhetoric on the dispute.

"John McCain shot from the hip," Rice said on MSNBC, calling his initial statement "very aggressive, very belligerent."

Lieberman, one of McCain's most ardent and vocal supporters, responded by criticizing Obama's more cautious first statement on the Georgia situation an example of "moral neutrality" that showed his "inexperience."

By Wednesday, however, both McCain and Obama had come together to praise the Bush administration's announcement of humanitarian aid and the secretary of state's diplomatic journey. McCain also told reporters that "this isn't the time for partisanship, sniping between campaigns," and declined to comment on Rice's or Lieberman's remarks.

Barnes reported from the campaign trail in Michigan and Colorado.


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