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    Central Asia
     Sep 4, 2008
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 full advantage.

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 relations".

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.

(Copyright 2008 Andrei P Tsygankov.)


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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Sep 2, 2008)

 
 



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