McCain's 'sloganeering' on Georgia irresponsible

Edward Goldberg

Published on October 1, 2008
© 2008 - The Washington Times

U.S. citizens basically have only two choices in elections - simplicity rules. But the issues facing America are nuanced and complicated. And nowhere is this more true than in foreign policy.

The situation in Georgia and the Caucasus is a prime example. How easy it was for Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, to reduce a complex problem to simple sloganeering when he stated, "We are all Georgians." The immediate implication was that Georgia is the current equivalent of Cold War Berlin.

But this is not only a misreading of history and a misunderstanding of where Russia is today in its historic cultural conflict between westernization and despotism. It is also an example of irresponsible sloganeering from someone who wants to lead the United States.

Words are traps. And words spoken by leaders or would-be leaders need to be chosen with judgment.

For the Arizona Republican to raise Georgia to the historic level of Berlin and to say with reference to Georgia that "we face many dangerous threats in this dangerous world, but I'm not afraid of them" is what the late playwright Tennessee Williams would call mendacity.

What Mr. McCain did was to make a complicated issue into a simple moral rallying cry to his constituency.

Even George W. Bush, in his first campaign for the presidency under the wise tutelage of Gen. Colin Powell and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, pointedly spoke softly on foreign policy in order not to foreclose any negotiating options if elected. Mr. McCain foolishly is doing the opposite, arousing his constituency so that, if elected, he will have curtailed his ability to maneuver in a very nuanced world.

There is no doubt that Russia overreacted in Georgia. And there is also no doubt that the Russian invasion, regardless of how planned it might have been, was a reaction to a provocation from the Georgian government - a provocation that some might argue was given an implied green light from the Bush administration.

But Russia greatly overplayed its hand, and, in a globalized world where perception leads reality, Russia's actions awakened the remembered fears of past Soviet aggression.

Russia's exploit in Georgia - rooted in more than 200 years of Caucasus conflict and Stalinesque population and boundary shifts - was the action of a newly awakening power more interested in displaying might than trusting the judgment of the international system.

What a difference it would have made if Russia trusted the system. Imagine if Russia would have brought its grievances about Georgian military action in the semiautonomous areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia immediately to the U.N. Security Council. It would have put the whole issue in another perspective.

Russia has learned many things since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But how not to act with a heavy hand is not one of them.

Russia's move into and recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was very shortsighted and, in the long term, against Moscow's interests. One of the most destabilizing forces in the world today is the potential for various ethnic regions to break away and demand recognition as independent nations. Russia is particularly threatened with this phenomenon. Yet for whatever historic, cultural and political reasons, it determined it had to assist in the destabilization in Georgia.

Russia's closest Asian neighbors, members with Moscow of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - including China - recognized the shortsightedness immediately. The SCO supported Russian peacekeeping efforts but stressed the importance of territorial integrity and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The other SCO members are Central Asian countries that had been part of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

It would be irresponsible to let Cold War nightmares distort the view of Russia's strengths.

Yes, Russia is a major supplier of energy to European NATO countries. And, yes, Russia's gross domestic product has jumped from $200 billion in 1999 to an estimated $1.7 trillion this year. But it accounts for only 2.8 percent of the world's GDP.

Russia's defense spending is a fraction of that of the United States - about $30 billion a year, compared with more than $500 billion in the U.S. Further, with oil and natural gas accounting for 60 percent of its exports, Russia is vulnerable to falling world energy prices. At the same time, its energy production is stagnant because of re-nationalization.

Mr. McCain is earnestly trying to dissociate himself from the Bush administration. But in his eagerness to reduce the complicated to the simple in dealing with Russia and the Caucasus, he is demonstrating a similar lack of judgment in foreign policy.

Edward Goldberg, a consultant on international trade with Russia and Eastern Europe, teaches international marketing at the Zickland Graduate School of Business, Baruch College of the City University of New York.

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