Russia: A useful enemy in US polls
By Andrei Tsygankov
The United States presidential candidates increasingly present Russia as a
threat in their campaigns. Republican Senator John McCain is clearly thriving
on the recent Georgia-Russia war. Escalation in the Caucasus has been lobbied
by McCain since at least 2003, and he is now exploiting the conflict to his
McCain worked to bring President Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia, and
the McCain-led International Republican Institute, an international wing of the
National Endowment for Democracy, was involved in training and financing the
revolutionary opposition to Saakashvili's political rival Eduard Shevardnadze.
After helping to bring Saakashvili to power, McCain became a
leading voice in advocating Georgia's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO). Along with other anti-Russian politicians, McCain saw the
alliance's purpose as containing Russia and promoting American domination in
the Eurasian region, which has vast resources and geopolitical importance.
He has supported Saakashvili in all of Georgia's conflicts with Russia,
including the most recent one, and even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize
for winning "popular support for the universal values of democracy, individual
liberty and civil rights".
McCain's advisor Randy Scheunemann has reportedly been paid nearly US$800,000
since 2004, including $300,000 since January 2007 for lobbying Georgia's NATO
membership. Since 2004, Scheunemann's company, Orion Strategies, has arranged
over 70 telephone calls between McCain or his advisers and foreign customers,
most of them candidates for membership in NATO.
Unlike the George Bush administration, McCain did not pretend to consider
Russia a partner in security relationships. Although the US needs Russia's
cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran and other international issues, McCain is
looking for confrontation. He hardly stands a chance to win elections on
domestic issues, and he admitted as much early in the campaign, "The issue of
economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."
His winning strategy is pegged to a national security election, and for that he
needs an international conflict with serious repercussions for the United
States. In June, McCain's chief strategist, Charlie Black, indicated that
another terrorist attack against the country "would be a big advantage" for
McCain, as his "ability to talk about it re-emphasized that this is the guy
who's ready to be commander-in-chief". Although McCain disagreed with the
statement, he insists on viewing Russia as a threat to the United States.
Consciously or not, American officials are assisting McCain in presenting the
Russia-threat image and Russia's position in the conflict with Georgia as
fundamentally at odds with US interests. Vice President Dick Cheney referred to
Russia's role as "unjustifiable assault" and said that "Russian aggression must
not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences
for its relations with the United States".
Moscow has since recognized the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia
and Abkhazia. A Georgian offensive against South Ossetia last month led to the
Russian intervention in the country.
Cheney further insisted on selling Georgia more arms, including Stinger
anti-aircraft missiles, to defend itself against Russia. President George W
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also threatened that Russia would
"pay a price" for its actions, and Rice compared the Kremlin's role with the
Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Democratic Senator Barack Obama, meanwhile, also wants to be tough on Russia.
The crisis over South Ossetia has abundantly demonstrated that Russia demands
to be a part of the security system in the Caucasus and it would be extremely
provocative to ignore this demand. Yet Obama's statements on the crisis
indicate that, just like McCain, he views the solution to the crisis as
bringing Georgia into NATO, despite Russia's objections.
Obama's circle of Russia advisors as well as his choice of Senator Joe Biden as
his running mate also suggest that Obama may have bought into the Russophobic
rhetoric popular with some groups in Washington.
Biden and McCain are no different in their stance on Russia. It was following
McCain's statement in the senate in November 2003, warning of "a creeping coup
against the forces of democracy and market capitalism" in Russia that others on
Capitol Hill, including Biden, began calling on the administration to get tough
with the Kremlin.
Both McCain and Biden signed "An Open Letter to the Heads of State and
Governments of the European Union and NATO", organized by the right-wing group
the Project for the New American Century and released in September 2004. The
letter raised concerns over "the deteriorating conduct of Russia in its foreign
Both have characterized Russia's current political system as neo-Soviet, called
for isolating the country from the West and advocated a fast track for
Georgia's membership in NATO.
Obama, who is playing by McCain-devised rules of competition, may yet out-tough
his Republican opponent.
Andrei P Tsygankov, professor of International Relations/Political
Science, San Francisco State University.