On bullshit-cutting ultimatums which (perverse alchemy!) themselves turn out to be bullshit by mattsteinglass
August 26, 2008, 2:15 pm
Filed under: President, Russia

Towards the end of Sean Wilentz’s critique of Obama in Newsweek, which has come in for tremendous amounts of flak, he offers this comparison of Obama’s and McCain’s responses to Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama’s immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.”

Who exactly is guilty of “wishful thinking” in this situation? John McCain delivered an ultimatum to the Russians. The only problem was that on the far side of that ultimatum stood the threat of — nothing. There was nothing whatsoever the US could or was prepared to do to get Russia to withdraw from Georgia. Under those circumstances, what purpose is served by blowing hot air? McCain’s statement had all the force of one of those proclamations by Amnesty International that China must immediately and unconditionally free all of its political prisoners. After a while, when you keep saying things like this, people tune you out. You come to seem powerless.

As a POW in Hanoi, John McCain spent years isolated and powerless, dependent on the mercies of often violent camp officials. The POWs confined under those conditions came to fantasize about compensatory orgies of destruction: they proclaimed total resistance to camp authorities, they welcomed every intensification of a bombing campaign, they greeted the B-52s Nixon sent in 1972 with open arms. McCain and many other POWs were convinced that the Christmas bombings in 1972 were a long-awaited display of American might that finally gained them the respect of their contemptuous guards and resulted in the war’s end and the release of the prisoners several months later. That view of the war is undercut by the fact that the US got nothing out of the Paris negotiations; NVA forces remained in South Vietnam, and two years later they swept into Saigon. The problem was that the US in Vietnam by 1972 had nothing left to bargain with. Hanoi knew the US was leaving, one way or another; the rest was details. As in Georgia in 2008, the US had no real options to back up its noisy talk. The question is, under such circumstances, what kinds of statements do you make? Do you bloviate about your red lines and what is and isn’t acceptable? Or do you keep calm and cool, and avoid letting the rest of the world know whether or not you cared?


2 Comments so far
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It seems you are making an assumption that the intended audience of McCain’s response was Russia when it actually was the American electorate. We can debate actual policy all you want, but McCain’s response was more receptive to Truman and JFK Democrats, and the only thing that matters at this time is winning the election. What we can do now about Russia and Georgia is irrelevant.

Comment by Mal Armstrong

I don’t think it’s smart to engage in empty bellicose rhetoric that damages the US’s international posture for purely domestic political reasons. It’s even less smart if that empty bellicose rhetoric gets out ahead of US policy and forces the President to follow along, against US interests. I think what you’re saying here about McCain is rather damaging.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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