On Sept. 3, Republican presidential candidate John McCain told ABCs Charles Gibson that his running mate, Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, had foreign policy experience on the grounds that Alaska is right next to Russia. Palin was given the opportunity to exhibit her Russia expertise last week during her first major interview, also with Mr. Gibson, since being tagged as McCains running mate. Although much attention remains devoted to the two wars launched by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia has emerged this summer as a major foreign policy issue this election season.
Ms. Palins response to the recent Russia-Georgia conflict indicates the Republican tickets willingness to follow in the Bush administrations footsteps when it comes to using or misusing democracy to justify an aggressive, bellicose foreign policy. Weve got to keep an eye on Russia, Palin toldGibson. Referring to this summers Russia-Georgia conflict, Palin scolded Russia for its aggressive actions in Georgia. For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable, she said. When pressed as to whether Russia was unprovoked, she replied that yes, it was. This, however, is not the case.
On the night of Aug. 7, with most Moscovites vacationing at their dachas and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin on his way to Beijing for the Olympic Games, Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia in an attempt to reestablish control of the region following a succession of clashes between Georgian troops and separatist forces.
It was only after the Georgian offensive that Russia intervened. And while Russias response was disproportionate, one would be hard pressed to argue that Georgia did not know that their actions would provoke a Russian reaction. As James Traub wrote in The New York Times, Georgias Columbia-educated, Western-backed president Mikheil Saakashvili has played a dangerous game of baiting the Russian bear. It seems that Saakashvilli not only may have led his now devastated country into an avoidable war, but also sparked a shift in American political discourse on Russia.
Although many Russians I spoke with in Moscow this summer viewed Saakashvilli as a war criminal, American pundits and politicians painted the conflict as indicative of a resurgent, aggressive Russia bent on undermining democratic aspirations throughout the former Soviet space and spitting in the face of American influence in the eastern hemisphere.
Palin is not alone in seeing Russia as the provoker not the provoked as a country seeking to regain its former empire, to invade sovereign countries on a whim, to send a message to the world that its back.
This is not to say that Russia hasnt acted aggressively to reassert itself as the dominant regional power. In 2006, to cite just one example, Gazprom, Russias state-controlled gas conglomerate, cut off supplies to Ukraine to influence domestic Ukrainian politics. But Russias actions toward Georgia in August cannot be viewed in a simplistic framework of unilateral Russian bullying.
Still, the McCain-Palin ticket has used this conflict to step up its vitriolic rhetoric. McCain wants to expel Russia from the G8 and reconsider further WTO accession talks. And both he and Palin are committed to expanding NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine. In her interview, Palin stated that the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine have showed us that those democratic nations, I believe, should be in NATO.
Yet only a week ago, Ukraines pro-Western coalition collapsed due to infighting between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, two prominent leaders of the Orange Revolution. Viktor Yanukovich, whose intial victory over Yushchenko in fraud-plagued elections inspired the 2004 Orange Revolution, remains a major figure on the Ukrainian political scene. And last November, Americas sweetheart, Mr. Saakashvilli, declared a 15-day state of emergency after police broke up opposition protests calling forhim to step down.
Such developments cast doubts on the strength of democracy in these countries and the degree of stability that Western especially American support really lends them. Rather, Palins comments indicate that, like the current Bush administration, a McCain-Palin administration would continue to treat democracy as a hollow slogan used to justify extension of American power.