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In Denver, Making Room for Moscow

Author: Michael Moran
Updated: August 28, 2008

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DENVER--Until a few weeks ago, the idea that Russia would have any sort of influence on U.S. presidential politics in this electoral cycle would have struck most people as absurd. Neither its position as a major energy power, its influence on Iran's nuclear program, its own enormous nuclear weapons arsenal, nor its frequently demonstrated willingness to play hardball with the nations it once ruled in the Soviet empire warranted much attention on the hustings. As our Issue Tracker shows, both Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive Democratic and Republican candidates, had made policy statements prior to the Caucasus flare-up. But Russia did not headline either campaign's battle plans, although McCain had generated comment by calling for Russia's ouster from the G8 in 2007.

Russia's invasion of Georgia's volatile South Ossetia region in early August restored U.S.-Russia affairs to a place many had hoped they would never return. The clash prompted reactions from both Obama and McCain about how the United States should react to Moscow, with McCain declaring "We are all Georgians"(WSJ).The issue was punctuated this week by Moscow's decision to recognize the independence (FT) of the breakaway pro-Russian enclave and another, Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coastline. It has given McCain an opportunity to criticize Obama during the Democrat's weeklong convention, which organizers plan on August 27 to turn toward national security issues.

The emergence of Russia as a policy issue in the campaign only complicates what Richard C. Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN, deems "a daunting agenda" for the next president. Energy policy, an issue where true differences exist between the McCain and Obama platforms, has elbowed its way to the top of the agenda. McCain's stress on the need to exploit U.S. oil resources more fully put Democrats on the defensive when oil prices were at their peak. Meanwhile, on Iran, Obama's willingness to explore some kind of dialogue in the face of international struggles to prevent Tehran from going nuclear has put pressure on McCain to be specific about his plans if diplomacy should fail. With the economy bruised and battle fatigue showing in most polls of the U.S. electorate, McCain's tough talk against Tehran is viewed by Democratic strategists as an electoral liability.

Still, Iraq remains front and center in terms of the national security debate. The question of how best to extricate U.S. troops without sparking a new wave of violence has long dominated the debate and represents dangerous political ground for both campaigns. McCain's insistence on seeing through the war is seen by some as a calculated gamble that security improvements there will prove durable. Obama's criticism of the decision to go to war, which still fires up his base but has lost much relevance to policy five and a half years later, has led to a softening of early demands for a quick drawdown and a new stress on Afghanistan.

Both men, of course, would send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, though Obama and his new running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), addressing the convention on August 27, reinforced the party's position that instability in Afghanistan and elsewhere is a direct result of the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Biden said: "I've been on the ground in Georgia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms: This administration's policy has been an abject failure."

It is through the prism of a flagging, halfhearted effort in Afghanistan that many Democrats now view the homeland security and public diplomacy issues stemming from the 9/11 attacks. From defense spending to Guantanamo Bay to immigration policy, little separates McCain and Obama in policy terms. Instead, Obama's surrogates paint McCain as complicit in the country's national security plight; McCain's campaign responds by highlighting their man's experience in such matters.

With Russia now added to Iraq, Afghanistan, and energy as top-tier issues, other important policy questions invariably get crowded out. Obama's statements that free trade agreements, and in particular, NAFTA, be revised appear popular with many voters and run counter to McCain's Republican orthodoxy on the issue. On the Middle East, Latin America, and policy toward India and China, the two men largely agree, though their foreign policy advisors show degrees of difference in their own writings and pronouncements on these topics.

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