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One Voice on Georgia

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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, September 1, 2008

Despite their sharp jabs at each other's reaction to Russia's invasion of Georgia, Barack Obama and John McCain agree about the most fundamental question it poses. Yet both campaigns know that the issue could define their differences for voters in critical if unpredictable ways.

Their agreement is fortunate for America, especially since it was far from guaranteed that both major parties would nominate candidates committed to American leadership in defending the territorial integrity and democratic aspirations of small and distant nations.

Plenty of people in both parties, after all, question that commitment. Some believe that America's past behavior, from the Spanish-American War to the invasion of Iraq, disqualifies it from telling anyone else what to do. Others argue, as Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said to me last week, that we should be understanding of Russia's desire for its own "sphere of influence." Still others worry that America is overextended and that it should not let itself get dragged into conflicts by unpredictable allies it cannot control.

None of these arguments is trivial, and managing a newly aggressive Russia will pose challenges that the candidates -- like the Bush administration -- are only beginning to confront.

But both McCain and Obama have lined up behind the idea that nations should be free to chart their own destiny and that the United States should help them do so. However inconsistently implemented, this has been a key principle of Democratic and Republican presidents since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and during the decades of the Cold War preceding it.

So why are the two camps still shooting spitballs at each other about their statements Aug. 8 as the Russia-Georgia fighting was getting underway? The Obama campaign accuses McCain of showing his Cold War mentality by blaming Russia so quickly. The accusation is beyond silly, since McCain had read the situation correctly -- as reflected by Obama's second statement, a few hours later, echoing McCain's. The McCain camp, for its part, views Obama's first, evenhanded response as reflecting inexperience or moral confusion, which is, at the least, reading too much into a statement that Obama quickly updated.

The argument persists as proxy for what may emerge in the debates as a far less trivial divide. Obama will portray McCain as a dangerous warmonger; McCain will portray Obama as a naive apostle of toothless diplomacy; and Vladimir Putin, who in his usual crude and disingenuous way already has injected himself into the U.S. campaign, may play a starring role.

For the McCain camp, Putin helpfully reminds voters that history from time to time produces bad men with whom reasoning may yield little fruit. Obama has emphasized the importance of talking to such men. Moreover, McCain boasts years of deep involvement in that part of the world, with clear positions taken. Obama's record is thin, and divisions within his own camp heighten the uncertainty about how he would respond.

Yet Obama advisers say the issue can work to their advantage. No one proposes deploying the U.S. military to Georgia, they point out, and therefore this crisis proves the importance of other tools, such as muscular diplomacy and strong alliances. If George W. Bush had not strained and frayed those alliances, if he had not misread Putin, the United States would have more options in standing up to Russia. Obama is better suited to refurbish the non-military tools, his advisers will argue.

From these competing frameworks a useful debate on concrete responses could emerge. The two may disagree on whether and how to rearm Georgia, as my colleague Jim Hoagland wrote yesterday; on the right balance of punishment and deterrence for Russia in terms of sanctions, exclusion from international forums and other measures; on the best way to bolster Ukraine and encourage European independence from Russian oil and gas.

But I hope the candidates won't let a debate over "who lost Ossetia" and how best to respond obscure their fundamental agreements. They understand that it is in America's interest to help democracy survive in Georgia, and they know that the primary culprit in this affair is neither Georgia nor George Bush. Vladimir Putin should be allowed no room for confusion about those mutual understandings.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

Read more from Fred Hiatt at washingtonpost.com's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.


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