Candidates criticize Russian action

August 12, 2008 6:15:59 PM PDT
Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain on Tuesday issued dueling statements about Russia's invasion of American-allied Georgia, a complex conflict that has opened a window on the differing diplomatic mindsets of the men vying to become the next U.S. president. McCain touts what he calls his overwhelming edge in experience in foreign affairs and security issues. He has been hitting the Kremlin hard for sending troops, armor and attack aircraft against the tiny Caucasus country, which gained independence after nearly two-centuries of Russian dominance with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Obama, too, has been full-throated in condemning the Russian attack but has called for restraint on both sides. He did not entirely absolve Georgia of a role in provoking Moscow by trying late last week to forcibly impose central government authority on the breakaway South Ossetia region.

Ossetians, who speak a version of the Persian language, live on either side of the spine of the Caucasus Mountains that form the border between Russian and Georgia. The South Ossentians, whose land lies in Georgia, have gained Kremlin protection as they have sought fitfully since the early 1990s to join with North Ossetia, on the other side of the Russian border.

At a campaign stop in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, McCain told a cheering crowd that he had just spoken with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, offering moral support and telling him: "Today, we are all Georgians."

The four-term Arizona senator had taken a tough stand against Moscow even before the invasion, calling for the Kremlin to be expelled from the Group of Eight, the organization of the world's richest nations known as the G-8. He says Russia has no place in the group given the increasingly authoritarian tendencies that have taken root under former President Vladimir Putin, who now has installed himself as prime minister.

Obama's most recent words on the crisis, a two sentence statement issued Tuesday from his Hawaiian vacation retreat, declared, "It is past time for the Russian government to immediately sign and implement a cease-fire. Russia must halt its violation of Georgian airspace and withdraw its ground forces from Georgia, with international monitors to verify that these obligations are met."

On Monday, Obama told the Russians "There is no possible justification for these attacks." At the same time, however, he said "Georgia should refrain from using force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and a political settlement must be reached that addresses the status of these disputed regions." That was a clear acknowledgment that Georgia, too, needed to change course.

Abkhazia is a second region in northern Georgia that has broken away, also under Russian protection. The Kremlin has based what it calls "peacekeepers" in both regions as a deterrent to Georgian desires to bring them back under central government control.

On Tuesday, after expressions of outrage in Washington and European capitals, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a halt to military action and said on national television that his military had inflicted sufficient punishment on Georgia.

"The security of our peacekeepers and civilians has been restored," Medvedev said. "The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized."

Hours later, Saakashvili told reporters that he generally accepted the cease-fire plan negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which calls for both sides to move back to their positions before fighting erupted.

Domestically, a leading Republican moderate with a foreign policy background endorsed Obama, who was trying to demonstrate his appeal to members of both political parties.

Former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa was among a group of Republicans who said they were crossing party lines to support Obama, although the campaign did not release names or the size of the group.

"I'm convinced that the national interest demands a new approach to our interaction with the world," Leach, a foreign service officer before being elected to Congress, said in a conference call with reporters.

Leach predicted that many Republicans and independents would be attracted by Obama's campaign but said his decision to endorse a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time was not easy.

Leach was elected to Congress in 1976 and served 30 years before losing his seat in 2006. As a moderate, he was often at odds with the conservative Republican leadership.

"For me, the national interest comes before party concerns, particularly internationally," said Leach, an Iraq war opponent.

"We do need a new direction in American policy, and Obama has a sense of that," he said. "He recognizes that a long-term occupation of Iraq is not only expensive, it's extremely dangerous to the American interests."

Leach said he was attracted to Obama's call for a dialogue with nations such as Iran that have long been seen as U.S. adversaries.

"He also recognizes that it's preferable to speak with potential adversaries rather than simply shun them," Leach said.

McCain has been highly critical of Obama's stated willingness to negotiate with world leaders whose policies are seen as threatening to U.S. interests and security.

While the crisis in the Caucasus played out, light was shined on the dark underside of American politics.

The Atlantic magazine reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton's top campaign strategist had advised her to cast Obama during their battle for the nomination as having questionable "roots to basic American values and culture" and use the theme to counter the image that his background is diverse and multicultural.

Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and white woman from Kansas, was born in Hawaii, the 50th U.S. state of Pacific Ocean islands that has a diverse culture. The first-term senator spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.

"I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values," top adviser Mark Penn wrote in a March 2007 memo to Clinton, who did not act on the advice.