Master Debating Georgia

Jim Lehrer went down to Georgia

Georgia figured prominently in the first McCain-Obama debate. I’ve annotated that portion of the debate with respect to their previous statements, official U.S. policy, the truth, and the truthiness. (Transcript from CNN.)

LEHRER: Russia, goes to you, two minutes, Senator Obama. How do you see the relationship with Russia? Do you see them as a competitor? Do you see them as an enemy? Do you see them as a potential partner?

OBAMA: Well, I think that, given what’s happened over the last several weeks and months, our entire Russian approach has to be evaluated, because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region.

Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable. They were unwarranted. And at this point, it is absolutely critical for the next president to make clear that we have to follow through on our six-party—or the six-point cease-fire. They have to remove themselves from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Never mind the abortive misstatement. The six-point agreement is not “ours”—it was drafted and negotiated by France, which holds the EU Presidency. The U.S. has supported the agreement, and greased the process to secure the signatures. As the Dep. Asst. Sec. State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matt Bryza, said,

The U.S. role in this process was central and timely. The Georgians had questions about the ceasefire agreement, so we worked with the French who issued a clarifying letter addressing some of Georgia’s concerns. Secretary Rice conveyed the draft Ceasefire Agreement and the letter to President Saakashvili the next day. Based on these assurances, additional assurances from the French, and the assurances of our support, President Saakashvili signed the ceasefire agreement on August 15.

The agreement was hastily and clumsily implemented, and disputes remain over the meaning of a preposition in the French original, signed by Saakashvili (who speaks French) and in the Russian translation, signed by Medvedev. These varying interpretations concern the allowable Russian presence in buffer zones, outside the administrative borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian forces remain in Georgia proper, and show no signs of withdrawing, and their numbers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia greatly exceed those before the conflict.

In any case, the agreement does not require the Russians to “remove themselves” from those regions. They were there before the recent conflict, both as nominal CIS peacekeepers, allowed under agreements signed by Georgia, and in other, illegal, capacities. Point five of the agreement reads,

Russian armed forces to withdraw to the positions held before hostilities began in South Ossetia. Russian peacekeepers to implement additional security measures until an international monitoring mechanism is in place.

For some time, Georgia has considered the peacekeeping and negotiation formats non-functional, and has called for internationalizing the peacekeepers. The OSCE has been stymied in its efforts to send an additional 100 unarmed observers to the South Ossetia conflict zone, while about 200 unarmed EU observers have just arrived.

The Obama campaign has not, to date, called for the Russians to withdraw entirely from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Bryza, on an earlier occasion, speculatively answered a reporter’s question about a Russian call for demilitarizing Georgia:

Well, first of all, what does Russia mean by the zone of conflict? If Russia means demilitarizing the actual zone of conflict of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, well, that’s probably something worth exploring, which would mean that Russian troops would not be able to be present in either zone of conflict, Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

Back to the debate.

OBAMA: It is absolutely important that we have a unified alliance and that we explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship.

And we also have to affirm all the fledgling democracies in that region, you know, the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Poles, the Czechs, that we are, in fact, going to be supportive and in solidarity with them in their efforts. They are members of NATO.

Nothing exceptional or exceptionable here, for the broad center of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. (I’m not concerned with what Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich has to say.) Not sure that the Czechs properly belong in that grouping (and the current Czech government is considerably more conciliatory to Russia than are the Balts and Poles); Ukraine is the usual fifth member of that quintet (see McCain’s remark below).

OBAMA: And to countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, I think we have to insist that they are free to join NATO if they meet the requirements, and they should have a membership action plan immediately to start bringing them in.

A small point of usage, which matters to Ukrainians (and Ukrainian-Americans): “The Ukraine” has gone the way of “The Sudan” and “The Argentine,” except among Russian speakers; it’s simply “Ukraine.”

Giving Obama full credit for intentional nuance, this is carefully phrased. While there’s something of a recent backlash to further NATO enlargement, bipartisan support for Georgian and Ukraine in NATO is still broadly popular. Calling for a membership action plan (MAP) is not calling for membership; MAP is a process, not a guarantee of an offer of membership. Albania, which received an offer at the most recent NATO Summit in Bucharest, was in MAP for nine years. Georgia had sought MAP at Bucharest, but was denied by Germany. President Bush pushed hard for it, and Obama and McCain both supported it. Georgia now hopes for an offer at the NATO ministerial in December.

Obama’s qualification of “if they meet the requirements” is usefully (and perhaps purposefully) vague, as are NATO’s actual requirements. Many analysts contend that a country must have settled its border and territorial disputes before it can join the alliance; as I have discussed elsewhere (“Can Georgia Join NATO Without Solving the Conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?”), neither NATO’s history of enlargement nor the few relevant official documents support this argument. For current political purposes this ambiguity indemnifies Obama against most domestic charges of rashness. Russia, however, regards any discussion of Georgia ever joining NATO as an outrageous provocation, so there’s no satisfying the anti-anti-Russians (is there some better update on “anti-anticommunist?”).

The recent Russia-Georgia war was something of a Rorschach test on attitudes about NATO enlargement and, in particular, Article 5 obligations. Proponents say, “if we’d admitted Georgia to NATO already, Russia wouldn’t have dared to invade.” Opponents counter, “if we’d admitted Georgia to NATO already, we would have found ourselves in a shooting war with Russia.” Yes, and if my grandmother had wheels…In any event, Article 5 compels member states only to

assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Back to the debate:

OBAMA: Now, we also can’t return to a Cold War posture with respect to Russia. It’s important that we recognize there are going to be some areas of common interest. One is nuclear proliferation.

They have not only 15,000 nuclear warheads, but they’ve got enough to make another 40,000, and some of those loose nukes could fall into the hands of al Qaeda.

This is an area where I’ve led on in the Senate, working with a Republican ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick Lugar, to deal with the proliferation of loose nuclear weapons. That’s an area where we’re going to have to work with Russia.

But we have to have a president who is clear that you don’t deal with Russia based on staring into his eyes and seeing his soul. You deal with Russia based on, what are your—what are the national security interests of the United States of America?

And we have to recognize that the way they’ve been behaving lately demands a sharp response from the international community and our allies.

Yes. No sense in pandering to the pro-nuclear-proliferation crowd. And Obama seized an opportunity to (a) establish his experience in foreign policymaking and (b) counter the attacks that he doesn’t “reach across the aisle.”

Of course, slamming Bush for his naiveté about Putin doesn’t distinguish himself from McCain—rather, it sets McCain up for his well-worn crowd pleaser about Putin.

LEHRER: Two minutes on Russia, Senator McCain.

MCCAIN: Well, I was interested in Senator Obama’s reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, “Both sides ought to show restraint.”

Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.

Yes and no—but mostly no (and see Obama’s response below). Obama’s first statement (on being roused from his vacation in Hawaii) was

I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict. Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war. Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected. All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia, and the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community should fully support a peaceful resolution to this crisis.

When do world leaders not call for everyone to exercise restraint when conflict erupts? It’s hardly equivalent to blaming the victim, and Georgia would not have benefited from full-scale war. The passive-voice construction about Georgia’s territorial integrity was too timid, and Obama seemed still to be in a vacation frame of mind when he made the statement (I can’t find a still-working video link). Listening to Russian Mig-29s flying overhead, I was left wanting something less evenhanded. The next day, however, Obama issued a much sterner statement, which was not readily distinguishable from McCain’s statement.

MCCAIN: And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government.

Wait for it…

MCCAIN: I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a “K,” a “G,” and a “B.” And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior.

I don’t believe we’re going to go back to the Cold War. I am sure that that will not happen. But I do believe that we need to bolster our friends and allies. And that wasn’t just about a problem between Georgia and Russia. It had everything to do with energy.

There’s a pipeline that runs from the Caspian through Georgia through Turkey. And, of course, we know that the Russians control other sources of energy into Europe, which they have used from time to time.

I think McCain meant to say that the Russians have used their control over energy (especially natural-gas) supplies to Europe as a political weapon.

Russian anger over alternative export routes for Caspian-basin hydrocarbons (i.e., which bypass Russia) was a major cause of their attack on Georgia, and they targeted pipelines, oil-tanker rail lines, and oil terminals on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

MCCAIN: It’s not accidental that the presidents of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine flew to Georgia, flew to Tbilisi, where I have spent significant amount of time with a great young president, Misha Saakashvili.

By normal people’s standards, senators don’t spend a “significant amount of time” anywhere but Washington, their home state, and Iowa and New Hampshire; their foreign travels are typically “if it’s Tuesday this must be Denmark.” But McCain has visited Georgia several times, and has a long-established relationship with Saakashvili (as does Joe Biden). McCain’s personal relationship is colored, some argue, by his chief foreign-policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann’s, activities as Georgia’s lobbyist in Washington. I don’t think that anyone should simultaneously lobby and advise a presidential campaign, but there was nothing particularly occult about Scheunemann’s efforts, unless you regard Georgia’s interests as inimical to America’s.

MCCAIN: And they showed solidarity with them, but, also, they are very concerned about the Russian threats to regain their status of the old Russian to regain their status of the old Russian empire.

Now, I think the Russians ought to understand that we will support—we, the United States—will support the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in the natural process, inclusion into NATO.

See above, re: Obama and NATO.

MCCAIN: We also ought to make it very clear that the Russians are in violation of their cease-fire agreement. They have stationed additional troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

More to the point, Russia has recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and plans to establish military bases in both.

MCCAIN: By the way, I went there once, and we went inside and drove in, and there was a huge poster. And this is—this is Georgian territory. And there was a huge poster of Vladimir Putin, and it said, “Vladimir Putin, our president.”

McCain is referring to his 2006 congressional delegation visit to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, where he met with the de facto leadership. At the time, South Ossetia had twice declared independence, which Russia did not recognize. Despite its pretensions to independence, South Ossetia was a Russian satrapy, and now actively seeks formal annexation by the Russian Federation.

MCCAIN: It was very clear, the Russian intentions towards Georgia. They were just waiting to seize the opportunity.

So, this is a very difficult situation. We want to work with the Russians. But we also have every right to expect the Russians to behave in a fashion and keeping with a—with a—with a country who respects international boundaries and the norms of international behavior.

Sounds almost…Obamaesque.

MCCAIN: And watch Ukraine. This whole thing has got a lot to do with Ukraine, Crimea, the base of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol. And the breakdown of the political process in Ukraine between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko is a very serious problem.

So watch Ukraine, and let’s make sure that we—that the Ukrainians understand that we are their friend and ally.

Uh huh.

LEHRER: You see any—do you have a major difference with what he just said?

OBAMA: No, actually, I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues. Obviously, I disagree with this notion that somehow we did not forcefully object to Russians going into Georgia.

I immediately said that this was illegal and objectionable. And, absolutely, I wanted a cessation of the violence, because it put an enormous strain on Georgia, and that’s why I was the first to say that we have to rebuild the Georgian economy and called for a billion dollars that has now gone in to help them rebuild.

I don’t know that Obama was the first to say that, but the billion-dollar aid package was Biden’s initiative, on his visit to Georgia to assess the need.

As for that billion dollars … it’s more like 370 million, and—as is always the case with foreign aid—it doesn’t all go to the nominal beneficiary. It’s also not clear that there is so much “need to rebuild.” The damage to Georgia’s military equipment and infrastructure was extensive, but this package is for non-military aid. Aside from the city of Gori and the Poti port, there was little damage to civilian infrastructure, and it’s not evident how much of that “billion” will be going to humanitarian relief for the tens of thousands of people permanently displaced by the Russian attack and land seizure.

OBAMA: Because part of Russia’s intentions here was to weaken the economy to the point where President Saakashvili was so weakened that he might be replaced by somebody that Putin favored more.

Putin despises Saakashvili (the feeling is mutual), and the Russians want to see him go. It might yet happen, but no credible Georgian political leader is pro-Russian or wobbly on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia gives sanctuary to a few disreputable former Georgian officials and meddles in Georgian domestic politics, but is in no position to install anyone who will do their bidding.

OBAMA: Two points I think are important to think about when it comes to Russia.

No. 1 is we have to have foresight and anticipate some of these problems. So back in April, I warned the administration that you had Russian peacekeepers in Georgian territory. That made no sense whatsoever.

And what we needed to do was replace them with international peacekeepers and a special envoy to resolve the crisis before it boiled over.

That wasn’t done. But had it been done, it’s possible we could have avoided the issue.

True: Statement of Senator Obama on Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Georgia has been calling for the same changes. But it was a nonstarter. Russian peacekeepers are an instrument of its foreign policy, not like Fijians patrolling Lebanon under a UN flag. So there was no way to get a UN PKO. The EU has a special envoy, who excels in doing exactly what is expected of him—not to make waves; they weren’t going to send peacekeepers. NATO? Umm, sure. Grandmother, wheels, q.v.

OBAMA: The second point I want to make is—is the issue of energy.

Obama makes a not-inapt segue to energy policy. I’ll leave it to someone else to parse that exchange. (Incidentally, “parse” doesn’t mean what McCain and Obama seem to think it means:

MCCAIN: And Senator Obama is parsing words when he says precondition means preparation.

OBAMA: I am not parsing words.

MCCAIN: He’s parsing words, my friends.

OBAMA: I’m using the same words that your advisers use.)

On the two campaigns’ energy-policy arguments, in general, I have little to add to what Kenneth Green and Abigail Haddad have written, in “Incoherent at Best: The Energy Policies of Barack Obama and John McCain.”

The verdict? There’s not much difference between the two candidates on Georgia, as many dovish Democrats and America-first Republicans have noted disapprovingly. In the debate, Obama tried to establish his bona fides, I think successfully, without trying to discredit McCain. McCain strained to make Obama look indecisive, consistent with the refrain throughout the debate that Obama “just doesn’t understand.” Which he pretty clearly does. As McCain himself noted during that 2006 codel,

whether there is a Republican or a Democrat, or whoever is President of the United States, there will be the continued strong support of the American President, Congress and people [for Georgia].


A personal note. In 2004 I worked on the Kerry-campaign policy-advisory team for Eastern Europe and the FSU; I helped write the policy position on the South Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). Campaigns produce hundreds, if not thousands, of such papers, so that a response is ready on every issue they think might arise (air-traffic control, dairy subsidies, Liechtenstein banking, etc.). As I recall, the South Caucasus was mentioned during the campaign…almost once. I offered my services to the Obama campaign, but they weren’t interested. A blessing in disguise, or fortunate misfortune?