Democrat Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden's remarks at a fundraiser in Seattle that an Obama Administration will be tested by an international crisis have drawn criticism from Republicans
Senator Joe Biden, Barack Obama's vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket for President, has never shied away from speaking his mind in public. At times this has led to ambiguous remarks, such as Biden's odd statement last year during the Democratic primaries that his future running mate Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy". More recently, it has led the Delaware Senator who prides himself on being an intellectual to commit an embarassing gaffe, declaring that President Franklin Roosevelt appeared on television to reassure the American people after the stock market crash of 1929. In reality, FDR wasn't elected until 1932 and television only came online a decade later, in 1939.
On October 19, Biden appeared before 10,000 supporters at a campaign rally in Tacoma, then spoke at a reception for Democratic donors in Seattle in the evening. At this fundraising dinner, Biden warned Democrats and the American people that an Obama Administration would be tested by an international crisis within the first six months of 2009.
"Mark my words: It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."
Predictably, Obama and Biden's Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, pounced on the Biden remark to suggest that the Democrats were unprepared to face such a crisis and to highlight his own foreign policy experience.
"The next President won't have time to get used to the office," McCain said. "We face many challenges here at home, and many enemies abroad in this dangerous world. If Senator Obama is elected, Senator Biden said, we will have an international crisis to test America's new president. We don't want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars."
Biden's Historic Analogy: Obama, Kennedy, and Russia
While this looks like typical partisan sparring during a fiercely contested presidential election year in America, the historic subtext of Biden's remarks seemed to have escaped much comment. That is, the comparison of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois to another young Senator who was relatively inexperienced upon assuming the presidency, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
JFK was tested by Soviet Russia, under the regime of the former Ukrainian collective farming boss Nikita Krushchev. Following his notorious shoe banging performance at the United Nations shortly before the U.S. elections in 1960, the steely Soviet premier bullied President Kennedy at a summit in Vienna in 1961. After the botched CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion conducted by Cuban exiles in April 1961, Krushchev decided that Kennedy was a weak adversary who could easily be intimidated.
In a reckless move, Krushchev ordered Soviet nuclear missiles to be deployed to Cuba, 90 miles from the U.S. coast of Florida. If the missiles had been launched, they would have reached Washington D.C., only 900 miles away, in less than twenty minutes, leaving the President with no opportunity to evacuate the capital in the event of a nuclear war. The risk of World War III starting by accident or miscalculation reached a crescendo. President Kennedy responded with a naval blockade that searched all ships entering Cuban waters and prepared contigency plans for an all out-U.S. invasion of the island.
The crisis ended after thirteen days, when both sides realized they were on the brink of nuclear destruction and reached a face-saving compromise. In return for the Soviets publically withdrawing their missiles from Cuba, Kennedy secretly agreed to pull American missiles out of Turkey. The next year, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, a seminal event that began a traumatic decade of political division and cultural upheaval for America. Under Krushchev's replacement Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union dramatically expanded its military support for the North Vietnamese, costing America over 58,000 lives during the its decade-long war in Vietnam. The U.S., in turn, mirrored this Soviet proxy war by arming the Afghan mujahadeen who fought the Red Army in Afghanistan during the 1980s, hastening the collapse of the USSR.
The Cold War History Influencing the Present
Applying this history lesson back to the present, the 47 year old Obama's opponent in this presidential election, the 72 year old Senator John McCain, is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and spent nearly five years in the notorious Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp after being shot down in 1968. In spite of McCain working hard during the Nineties to reconcile the U.S. and Vietnam, Soviet Russian support for the North Vietnamese during the war may still influence the Senator's view of Russia today.
McCain is famous for mocking President Bush's 2001 statement that he looked into President Vladimir Putin's eyes and got a sense of the Russian leader's soul by declaring that he had done the same and saw three letters "K-G-B". The KGB line has become a regular part of McCain's foreign policy stump speech on the campaign trail. During the conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, McCain repeatedly condemned Russian actions and called for Ukraine and Georgia to be admitted into NATO as soon as possible.
Obama/Biden Toughened Their Rhetoric Against the Kremlin
In contrast, Obama was initially slower to condemn the Russian military intervention in the Caucases, and his first statement called on both sides to reach an immediate ceasefire. Only after McCain and other Republicans criticized Obama's response as weak did the Senator issue a new statement criticizing the Russian invasion of Georgia. However, Russian pundits watching the American elections could find little comfort in Obama's statements during the presidential debates, in which he declared that he and Senator McCain basically agreed on Russia and that the Kremlin had engaged in "evil actions" in Georgia. Obama also echoed McCain's call for Ukraine and Georgia to be brought into NATO.
What Was Biden Thinking? NATO, Ukraine and Georgia
After being questioned about his remarks at the Seattle fundraising dinner, Biden reportedly offered the Democrat donors in attendance several scenarios that could test an Obama Administration. While the main scenario Biden offered was predictably a confrontation with Pakistan over its support for Taliban insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan, Biden also mentioned a possible clash between the U.S. and Russia. Perhaps Biden had NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine in mind as the event that would precipitate a crisis.
The Kremlin has made it clear that Moscow considers bringing both former Soviet republics into NATO as a red line that the U.S. and Europe must not cross, and has now backed up this rhetoric with military force in Georgia. Nonetheless, for now, both candidates are promising a renewed push to bring these countries into NATO, even though "Old Europe" countries like Germany, Italy and France that depend on Russia for their oil and gas supplies support a go-slow approach to Ukrainian and Georgian membership. Given Russia's growing financial ties with the EU and the EU's dependence on Russia for energy supplies, this opposition is likely to harden in the months to come.
Gaffe or Real Concern?
Given Biden's propensity for public gaffes, his remarks leave us wondering. If past is prologue, what he said in Seattle may not mean anything. That said, the vice presidential candidate is one of the Senate's foreign policy experts and might have real, if hidden, concerns.
Charles Ganske is the former editor in chief of Russia Blog and works in the financial services industry. The views expressed here are his own.