Both Candidates Support Ukraine, Georgia NATO Membership
Last night in Oxford, Mississippi on the campus of Ole Miss University the Democrat and Republican contenders for the White House clashed in their first presidential debate. The topic of foreign policy had been agreed to in advance, but given the extraordinary financial crisis impacting the U.S. this week, tax and spending policies were also key topics for PBS moderator Jim Lehrer. To Lehrer's credit, as usual, he didn't let either candidate excessively interrupt the other, while highlighting their areas of disagreement.
No surprise, Senator John McCain declared his distaste for the Kremlin. McCain said: "Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that has basically become a KGB apparatchik-run government...I looked in Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three letters -- a K, a G and B."
Click on the extended post to read a transcript of the debate.
Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL) are in a tight race for president of the U.S.
The McCain comment, of course, was a reference to President George W. Bush's famous (or notorious) remark that he looked into then Russian President Vladimir Putin's eyes during their first meeting in Slovakia in June 2001 and "got a sense of his soul". Of course, what neither Obama nor McCain mentioned is that Putin was the first world leader on 9/11 to call Bush and offer him not just sympathy, but immediate access to airspace and bases for American retaliation against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Within weeks of 9/11, fully armed American bombers were flying through Russia on their way to strike targets in Afghanistan -- something that would have been unthinkable just a few years before.
Obviously, that level of trust in the U.S.-Russia relationship has broken down in the last seven years. Nonetheless, hopefully both candidates understand that with Pakistan becoming more hostile to America (Pakistani troops recently opened fire on a U.S. helicopter), maintaining the logistical lifeline through Russia and the Central Asian republics to Afghanistan is critical to the NATO mission in that country. Russia must also be involved in any solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff and the global credit crisis.
Last week Russia's stock markets discovered that they are directly affected by what happens in Washington and New York, whether the Kremlin likes this fact or not. On the flip side of this coin, Washington needs to avoid creating inflation and higher oil prices in Russia by further weakening the dollar through irresponsible overspending and monetary excess. President Medvedev, in his candid comments (transcript here) to veteran Western Russia watchers at the 2008 Valdai Discussion Club, discussed the instability in American financial markets and how this has affected Russia's sovereign wealth fund U.S. investments.
McCain and Obama did debate foreign policy, mainly the war in Iraq, but they offered little disagreement on the Russia-Georgia conflict. Both candidates condemned Russia's incursion into the former Soviet republic but offered little context as to how the crisis developed or long term vision for how to engage a resurgent Russia.
The following is an excerpt from CNN's transcript of the debate.
LEHRER: New lead question.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The second point I want to make is -- is the issue of energy. Russia is in part resurgent and Putin is feeling powerful because of petro-dollars, as Senator McCain mentioned.
That means that we, as one of the biggest consumers of oil -- 25 percent of the world's oil -- have to have an energy strategy not just to deal with Russia, but to deal with many of the rogue states we've talked about, Iran, Venezuela.
And that means, yes, increasing domestic production and off-shore drilling, but we only have 3 percent of the world's oil supplies and we use 25 percent of the world's oil. So we can't simply drill our way out of the problem.
What we're going to have to do is to approach it through alternative energy, like solar, and wind, and biodiesel, and, yes, nuclear energy, clean-coal technology. And, you know, I've got a plan for us to make a significant investment over the next 10 years to do that.
Click here to read the rest of the transcript over at CNN.com.