Obama and McCain Both Fumble Russia in Debate

obamamccain100808.jpgIt seems that I have taken my own sweet time in getting around to writing about all the not-very-interesting things the two presidential candidates said about Russia last night, and that many other bloggers have already issued their opinions. Although there was certainly more time spent talking about Russia than at any other moment of this entire campaign, we still did not hear much that was new. Sen. John McCain issued his trademark line to differentiate himself from George Bush about seeing the letters “K, G, and B” in the eyes of Vladimir Putin (I have lost count how many times he has said this), and commented that with regard to the war in Georgia, Russia “must understand that these kinds of actions and activities are not acceptable and hopefully we will use the leverage, economic, diplomatic and others united with our allies, with our allies and friends in Europe who are equally disturbed as we are about their recent behaviors.” Obama did not parrot McCain exactly, as some appear willing to conclude. OK, let’s be frank: although many estimate that Obama won the debate, he was absolutely slaughtered by McCain on the Russia issues, appeared visibly uncomfortable, and attempted to steer the discussion toward issues he was more comfortable with (like chasing down Bin Laden). McCain, on his behalf, appeared to relax for the first time throughout the night once he was given a chance to talk about Russia, and coasted from there to a stronger finish. Nevertheless, for all the delights of the American democratic process as showcased by this debate, voters were not enlightened in terms of any new clear or incisive ideas or solutions about how to handle problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Personally, I found the language used by both candidates to be especially paternalistic, describing Russian conduct in recent years as “good vs. bad” behavior, as though this government were a child with which we reward with lollipops and punish with spankings. If the next presidential administration is unwilling or unable to understand Russia’s actions in terms of legitimate interests and motivations, than we will truly find our ability to influence political outcomes there drastically reduced.I will credit Tom Brokaw with having asked two (not just one!) interesting questions about Russia, which was already more than Jim Lehrer was able to get across. His second question (Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?) prompted a surprisingly honest and direct response from McCain:

McCain: Maybe.Brokaw: Maybe.McCain: Depends on how we respond to Russia and it depends on a lot of things. If I say yes, then that means that we’re reigniting the old Cold War. If I say no, it ignores their behavior.Obviously energy is going to be a big, big factor. And Georgia and Ukraine are both major gateways of energy into Europe. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s in our interest.But the Russians, I think we can deal with them but they’ve got to understand that they’re facing a very firm and determined United States of America that will defend our interests and that of other countries in the world.

I think that if you consider the tone and direction of what both candidates are saying about Russia in this election, you find a dramatic comparison with what was said by John Kerry and George Bush in the 2004 debates:

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. President, this is the last question. And two minutes. It’s a new subject — new question, and it has to do with President Putin and Russia. Did you misjudge him or are you — do you feel that what he is doing in the name of antiterrorism by changing some democratic processes is OK?GEORGE BUSH: No, I don’t think it’s OK, and said so publicly. I think that there needs to be checks and balances in a democracy, and made that very clear that by consolidating power in the central government, he’s sending a signal to the Western world and United States that perhaps he doesn’t believe in checks and balances, and I told him that.I mean, he’s also a strong ally in the war on terror. He is — listen, they went through a horrible situation in Beslan, where these terrorists gunned down young school kids. That’s the nature of the enemy, by the way. That’s why we need to be firm and resolve in bringing them to justice.That’s precisely what Vladimir Putin understands, as well.I’ve got a good relation with Vladimir. And it’s important that we do have a good relation, because that enables me to better comment to him, and to better to discuss with him, some of the decisions he makes. I found that, in this world, that it’s important to establish good personal relationships with people so that when you have disagreements, you’re able to disagree in a way that is effective. (…)JOHN KERRY: Well, let me just say quickly that I’ve had an extraordinary experience of watching up close and personal that transition in Russia, because I was there right after the transformation. And I was probably one of the first senators, along with Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, a former senator, go down into the KGB underneath Treblinka Square and see reams of files with names in them.It sort of brought home the transition to democracy that Russia was trying to make.I regret what’s happened in these past months. And I think it goes beyond just the response to terror. Mr. Putin now controls all the television stations. His political opposition is being put in jail.And I think it’s very important to the United States, obviously, to have a working relationship that is good. This is a very important country to us. We want a partnership.

Reading over these transcripts about what was said about Putin’s democratic crackdown in 2004 offers an astonishing contrast with this year’s election, and I think it would be deeply hypocritical for either party to pretend like they had a clue about the direction in which Moscow was headed (isn’t it amazing how much Henry Kissinger sounds like ’04 John Kerry?). On the one hand, it is very good to see that both McCain and Obama realize that major attention needs to applied to the U.S.-Russia relationship, and that this can no longer be a back burner issue at the State Department. The bad news is that we can expect to only hear about all kinds of retroactive statements about who said what and when instead of innovative ideas. For example, there is already a fact checking fight over Obama’s claim that he denounced the situation in Georgia before the war began.Oddly, I think that we can learn more about the potential foreign policies toward Russia of both these candidates not from their statements on the Russia questions, but rather some of their general comments about engagement strategies with or without pre-conditions, views on isolation, and the general philosophy of how to work within the United Nations with non-democratic states which may occasionally pose authoritarian vetoes. If these are the questions we are dealing with here, I’d definitely lean toward Michael McFaul over Robert Kagan – whose concept of a “league of democracies” was directly referenced by McCain last night.Obama was perhaps wise enough not to mention that his advisers are strongly against kicking Russia out of the G8, nor did he really address how to apply leverage without starting a new Cold War. For all we know, McCain’s policy in practice could be identical, because he wouldn’t want to “telegraph his punches” before he is ready to make them.