Russia And The Candidates

Russian tanks on the outskirts of Gori, northwest of capital Tbilisi, Georgia, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008. Georgia early Thursday said the Russians were leaving Gori, but later alleged they were bringing in additional troops. Georgian officials who had gone into the city for the possible handover left unexpectedly around midday. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
AP Photo/Darko Bandic

Weekly commentary by CBS Evening News chief Washington correspondent and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer.

I suppose the good news is the presidential campaign finally got off the silly stuff last week. The bad news is it took a crisis with Russia to do it.

When the Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, we were reminded what we elect presidents to do: deal with the unexpected events that often receive scant attention in the campaigns that precede them.

Foreign policy usually gets short shrift in presidential campaigns - the political consultants say people get bored with events in far-off places that have no direct bearing on their lives. Iraq was hardly mentioned in the campaign in 2000.

This time we got a preview of the next president's work schedule. He will spend a lot of time deciding how to deal with Russia, not a pocketbook issue to be sure, but maybe a life-or-death issue.

I can't believe that any rational American official wants to go to war with Russia - the Secretary of Defense said as much - but how do we deal now with Russia? What can we actually do to influence the country? What is best for our security?

This is a dangerous time; great powers have blundered into war for reasons far more frivolous than what we saw this week, and the candidates would do well not to meddle. We have one president at a time and they are not yet it.

What we do need to know is how each of them sees all this, how they approach the whole idea of managing relations with Russia. Those are the kinds of things campaigns should be about.

For the rest of us, what happened this week should be a warning: There is too much at stake to allow this campaign to drift back to the silly stuff that had begun to consume it.

We deserve better and should demand it.