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Russia Makes Trouble for the Democrats' Narrative

I wouldn't say that the words "Ossetia" and "Abkhazia" are on every delegate's lips out here, but Russia's aggression has spotlighted some interesting divisions within the Democratic Party -- and even the Obama team itself -- on foreign policy.

Barack Obama issued a very tough statement yesterday, after Russia recognized as independent countries two provinces of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He said "the U.S. should lead within the UN and other international forums... to further isolate Russia internationally because of its actions." Around the same time, as Bloomberg reported, two of Obama's senior advisers, former defense secretary Bill Perry and former Navy secretary Richard Danzig, were counseling against isolation and for engagement. I haven't seen any surveys on this, but it's clear that a lot of Democrats here feel more comfortable with the softer view.

Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio told a group of us Post reporters and editors that "if Russians were to try to do, over in our sphere of influence, what we've been doing in theirs, the reaction would be rather severe." The governor emphasized that he wasn't speaking for Obama, but when I expressed surprise -- and wondered how Polish-Americans and Ukrainian-Americans in Ohio would react to his apparent inclusion of independent nations into a Russian "sphere of influence" -- he didn't back off. "It seems to me we have taken action that was almost designed to be provocative, and that just doesn't seem wise to me."

The problem for Obama is that this crisis, and his response to it, doesn't comport with the narrative many Democrats here treasure, which could be summed up as: McCain is a warmonger like Bush, Obama will bring back diplomacy, and America, by invading Iraq and condoning torture, has forfeited any right to complain about Russia.

Listen to Joe Biden tonight, and Obama tomorrow, as they seek to weave their uncompromising response to Russia and their critique of Bush-McCain overall belligerence into a narrative that comforts the faithful and makes sense to the country.

By Fred Hiatt  | August 27, 2008; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  Hiatt  | Tags:  Fred Hiatt  
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Comments

Mr Hiatt, if you are such a patriot, why aren't you on the streets of Baghdad, "saving" us? When I was young and stupid enough to think killing for peace was feasible, I at least had the guts to volunteer and go over myself. What's keeping you? Take your neocon "patriot" cowards with you.

Posted by: gkam | August 27, 2008 3:37 PM | Report abuse

To ISA:
Gosh! what an articulate and comprehensive analysis you have put out there in that one word!! Bravo!!
Name calling the messenger isn't going to change the message. Obama/Biden need to walk an extremely tight and thin rope on this one. Talk about diplomacy alone and get branded weak and soft on defence. Talk belligerence - and join the club of Bush-McCain. Let's see the messiah wiggle out of this one LOL.

Posted by: DC | August 27, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Rather than ask "how Polish-Americans and Ukrainian-Americans in Ohio would react to his apparent inclusion of independent nations into a Russian "sphere of influence," try (no doubt for the first time in your life) asking how Americans from Guatemala, The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Columbia, Panama, Haiti, Grenada, Chili and even some from Cuba feel about their inclusion in our sphere of influence.

Posted by: davido | August 27, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that working within the UN is a diplomatic tool. McCain's approach to every problems is military action. There is a huge difference between the Democratic approach and the Republican approach. And, are you suggesting that every Republican agrees with McCain. It seems a tad biased (no surprise here) that you would single out the fact that some Democratic advisors have a difference with Obama's statement even if it is a highly nuanced difference. There is no doubt that McCain is a warmonger. The situation in Georgia was brought about because Georgia did not use good judgement when they killed a couple thousand of their own citizens who are aligned with Russia. Isn't this a bit like what Saddam Hussien did to the Kurds? We were rightfully offended with Saddam's actions and should be offended by Georgia's action too.

Posted by: cdgainesville | August 27, 2008 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Democrats would nominate Neville Chamberlain if they could prop his body up long enough......

Posted by: George Dixon | August 27, 2008 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I was prepared for another hatchett job, but Hiatt has a point.

Speaking for myself, it is not that the US has no room to criticize Russia, but that George Bush has abandoned the high ground. He led us into an invasion and regime overthrow in Iraq, approved of torture, unilaterally abrogated arms controls treaties, pushed missile bases on Russia's doorstep, and supported the anti-Russia candidates in the Ukraine and Georgia. A new president will have more moral authority.

Obama is doing the "see how tough, how American I am" routine. He and his advisors probably feel he's compelled to take the stance by the effect of right-wing attacks, including the accusations that he is a Manchurian candidate for Muslims opposed to the US and Israel, and the recognition that the media don't do nuance as well as they do sound-bites. Hillary's campaign can also claim some of the credit for pushing him into this corner. Yet, it is hard to believe that someone who calls for post-partisan politics in the US would not also apply the principles to foreign affairs.

On the other hand, it is clear that Putin provoked Georgia so he would have an excuse to invade, which ends the prospects for building more pipelines to bypass Russia's hold on European oil and natural gas supplies. Russia sees a vital national interest at stake; engagement at this late date may not produce much, and criticism is certainly warranted.

It will be a tight needle to thread in practice as well as in rhetoric. Among the Republican talking class, I've seen scant recognition that the dilemma of isolation vs engagement even exists.

Posted by: j2hess | August 27, 2008 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Why "softer," why not "smarter." Bush has deliberately been provocative toward Russia, pushing Nato up to its borders and placing missiles in Poland. We should have been engaging Russia from the beginning with the aim of including it in the WTO, and ultimately in NATO or some successor arrangement. Obama undoubtedly feels he needs to sound tough, but the range of the politically acceptable has been skewed so far toward the warmongering end of the scale it will take years to recalibrate.

Posted by: scientist1 | August 27, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I'm all about going to war over some STUPID NEOCON MANUFACTURED CRISIS- Like missles in Poland.
You want to say that we should back Georgia?
Fine, that means you're taking responsibility for the deaths of innocent civilians.
You can scrub and scrub and scrub, but your hands will NEVER COME CLEAN.
Burn in Hell, neocon murdering scum.

Posted by: Tomhere | August 27, 2008 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Bush tried "tough" on weak small states. He should have studied really hard how to get the better of Russia before this episode. Russia had sent out feelers about their resentment against America's "getting too close" to Russia. Bush and Cheney were too preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Middle East that they neglected another part of the world. We need "Old" Europe. How does that work now? Bush was and is not smart in crafting our foreign policy. Russia has regained some of its lost power after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Instead, Bush so foolishly thought he knew Putin after "looking into Putin's soul". Bush Cheney are to blame. obama has nothing to do with the Republicans' stupidity and naivete. Obama is not the president yet; judge him when he is the president. What we have from Mcain is tough talk, just like his twin Bush.

Posted by: M. Stratas | August 27, 2008 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Democrats would nominate Neville Chamberlain if they could prop his body up long enough......
Posted by: George Dixon | August 27, 2008 3:45 PM
***

Too bad that history complicates this neat little narrative of cowardice.

Britain and France thought communism was a greater danger than facism. Coming off of the revolution in Spain, it seemed an immediate threat. They thought a fight over the Sudentenland would do more to benefit the USSR than themselves. Some argue they also underestimated the Czech's strength and ability to fight for themselves.

So we have here a miscalculation, with historically ambiguous consequences. Would Stalin have moved into Eastern Europe earlier if they defeated Hitler? Might he still have agreed to Hitler's proposal to divide Poland, or would the war have started on the Eastern front? No one knows.

What the hawks do know is that turning a miscalculation into a moral story about "appeasement" gives them a nice little club they can trot out whenever it suits their purpose to denigrate their opponents.

Posted by: j2hess | August 27, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

You don't think Cheney and Rove would deliberatley manufacture and stoke a crisis like this for POLITICAL reasons? I mean we all know that BLOODY JOHN McCAIN is much more inclined to use MILITARY MIGHT to shove some stupid RONNIE REAGAN STAR WARS missles down the Russian's throats.

Posted by: Tomhere | August 27, 2008 4:08 PM | Report abuse

When are we ever going to vote our interests? When will the issues take importance over fluff distractors? I fear John McCain will win this election despite his complete incompetence on a host of issues. We deserve every little bit of what we'll get if we keep entrusting our nation's stewardship to these neo-cons.

Posted by: mortem pro Republica | August 27, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

It's bad enough that the man who has been living in George Bush's pants for 8 years is always telling us what the American people think, now you are going to tell us what the Democrats think?

You want to know what Democrats think? Read the comments to your foolish editorials.

Posted by: Bonnie | August 27, 2008 4:13 PM | Report abuse

If Obama was president he could get a UNANIMOUS UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia.

Posted by: we wait we hope | August 27, 2008 4:00 PM

----

Oh, please. You say stuff like that, and I'm going to be inclined to think you are dumber than Bush. I thought even fifth graders knew that Russia has a veto on the Security Council?

There will *never* be a Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Georgia, just as their was never one for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

Ditto for the American invasion of Iraq.

You wait, and you hope, but maybe you should also spend some time reading. Maybe start with the Wikipedia article on the United Nations.

Mark
Bellevue, WA

Posted by: Mark | August 27, 2008 4:34 PM | Report abuse

The Democrats don't walk in lockstep. They feel free to have differing opinions. Having differing points of view is only a "problem" for those who feel that everyone should toe the party line, right or wrong. The Communist Party of the old Soviet Union didn't care for differing points of view either.

Posted by: view from the couch | August 27, 2008 4:35 PM | Report abuse

To We wait we hope:

What a moron! Do you know that Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has a veto?
The Mericiful High Exalted Mystic Ruler Obama is going to get Russia to veto its own interest?
What a fool! and that goes for anyone voting for that bonafide idiot Obama

Posted by: Tom4 | August 27, 2008 4:47 PM | Report abuse

So there is no hypocrisy by the Bush administration? So Hiatt doesn't see that Bush lied to the country and invaded and occupied Iraq illegally? Now we have the moral standing to admonish Russia for doing less than we've done. There is still the question that Russia was provoked...yes their response was over the top, but they were: read my lips: provoked...and we weren't. What George W Bush did to Iraq was preemptive, illegal and wrong. Don't conveniently overlook that crucial point.

Posted by: castillom | August 27, 2008 4:50 PM | Report abuse

RePIGliKlans would nominate Adolf Hitler if they could prop his body up long enough......

Posted by: Fred Hiatt - Nazi Pig | August 27, 2008 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Why was it wrong for the Soviet Union to put missles in Cuba but right for the US to put missles in Poland?

Posted by: Do we remember history? | August 27, 2008 4:53 PM | Report abuse

They do not need another dead Britisher, but another General Custer will be on the shopping list.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | August 27, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

"Why was it wrong for the Soviet Union to put missles in Cuba but right for the US to put missles in Poland?"

Good question.

The Russian missiles were offensive nuclear weapons to destroy USA cities. The Polish missiles are defensive to stop Russian or Iranian missiles and to protect Polans. They are no danger to any other state.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | August 27, 2008 4:57 PM | Report abuse

And that if Russia will conclude the contract on military cooperation with any country of Abkhazia recognising independence and Ossetias. And their independence recognises Iran, the North Korea, Venezuela. Russian NATO? It is necessary to you? The Russian teleimage propagandises for democrats. I speak republicans better, more fairly. That on mind speak. For that that do not do.

Posted by: www | August 27, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

"The problem for Obama is that this crisis, and his response to it, doesn't comport with the narrative many Democrats here treasure, which could be summed up as: McCain is a warmonger like Bush, Obama will bring back diplomacy, and America, by invading Iraq and condoning torture, has forfeited any right to complain about Russia."

So what you're saying is that the strawman narrative you created for the Democrats isn't sufficiently nuanced to qualify as a real foreign policy? Jesus, who would have thought?

Your crap analysis of what Democrats think would be just as dismissive as suggesting that all Republicans think that we should start World War III. Obviously those charged with crafting foreign policy have to walk a thin line: witness the belligerence of McCain (and for that matter, Biden) compared to the considerably more careful words of the state department.

Yet, still no editorials on how the Republicans on the potential troubles caused by the differences between Bush and McCain here. Which one of those "makes sense to the country", I wonder? (Hint: it doesn't start with encouraging further Georgian action by promising troops.)

Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

"why aren't you on the streets of Baghdad, "saving" us?"

The last (I hope) retort of the hopeless and bewildered. In a representative democracy, we are all allowed an opinion. Some are selected to serve. After we serve,we should respect the right of others to contribute to the discussion. Not strut our service like a rooster.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | August 27, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

And what about the "Republican" narrative?

And who provoked whom?

I expected more from the Editor of the paper of record for our nation's capital. Why not comment on the existing problem instead of dreaming up problems with supposed narratives that have been concocted out of the air.

Can't we be treated like adults? And isn't global politics a little bit more complex than some gigantic game of risk? I remember that in the campaign of 2000, it was the Republican narrative that America should not be interposing itself in the local ethnic and political disputes within other sovereign countries. In fact the irony of the Republican "narrative" seems completely lost on Mr. Hiatt, viz. countries simply do not invade other sovereign countries in the 21st century. That is unless they are the US.

Posted by: eddiehaskel | August 27, 2008 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Let's isolate Russia. And it will deliver the weapon to Talibs to Afghanistan, sunitam to Iraq. America to Georgians to Georgia. To whom is it favourable?

Posted by: www | August 27, 2008 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Problem of Russia - 500 billion dollars in securities of the American hypothecary companies, the American state bonds. Be engaged in the economy.

Posted by: www | August 27, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Fred Hiatt, having drunk the neo-con Kool-Aid, tries to make trouble for the Democrats' Narrative.

But, as usual, fails.

What's the matter, Fred?

Have you run out of PNAC lunatics to call on for help with your columns?

Was Michael Rubin's column yesterday the bottom of the neo-con, chickenhawk barrel?

Or is there yet more clucking to come?

Posted by: pali2500 | August 27, 2008 5:21 PM | Report abuse

I don't profess to know the perfect solution - and really in situations like this, I doubt anyone really does.

But I can tell you that perhaps the most dangerous posture is one of vacillation - each side really needs to know where the other stands. Otherwise, 'accidental' wars are destined to happen.

So what ever Obama's position is, he needs to make it clear and then back it up. Not something he seems to be good at. McCain can be a hawk, or not, but a consistent path is what's important here.

Posted by: Keith | August 27, 2008 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps Fred Hiatt (or his close friends at JINSA) could explain what a US Coast Guard warship is doing in the Black Sea?

Or do the US coasts, by some BushCo magic, now extend to the Caucasus?

It would be hard for the Russians not to see this foolish move by the BushCo halfwits as a provocative action.

And they do.

"Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn warned that NATO has already exhausted the number of military forces it can have in the Black Sea under international agreements and warned Western nations against sending more ships."

Is this how the Republicans think they can get McCain elected? By fomenting an international, military crisis?

Posted by: pali2500 | August 27, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Since the "smirking" chimp GWB has lost ALL our credibility, everywhere, we have to concentrate on diplomacy. besides, we couldn't fight WWIII if we wanted to. also, to those who are obviously teenage boys posting fear filled insults, you must know that Mad Mac has a uniform being fitted for you right now. how's that for fear mongering?

Posted by: preAmerikkkan | August 27, 2008 5:45 PM | Report abuse

It would be nice if the media were to present the facts of our foreign relations in a perspective that Americans could understand and appreciate.

As I see it, the Russians are not threatening to blow us up. The major threats to Western Civilization are Islamic Extremism and Nuclear Proliferation. We can partner with Russia and lessen those two threats, or we can bait Russia into a new Cold War and have three big threats.

As for politicizing this issue: McCain's cut-and-paste foreign policy just isn't going to cut it. If there's a lesson to be learned, and spun here, it's that Saashkavili's temper got the best of him during his chess match with Putin; we should learn from that experience and keep our political hothead out of the geopolitical chess match.

Posted by: Deep Blue | August 27, 2008 6:26 PM | Report abuse

"We can partner with Russia and lessen those two threats, or we can bait Russia into a new Cold War and have three big threats."

How patently naive to say that we could partner with Russia. Typical nutroots response that has absolutely no basis in reality.

Posted by: NObama | August 27, 2008 8:05 PM | Report abuse

"How patently naive to say that we could partner with Russia. Typical nutroots response that has absolutely no basis in reality." ~ Posted by: NObama

__________________________________

Unless you can spell out why we cannot partner with Russia, your response is equally as "nutroots" with "absolutely no basis in reality."

Or do you think your unsubstantiated assertion has more credibility than someone else's unsubstantiated assertion?

Posted by: pali2500 | August 27, 2008 8:20 PM | Report abuse

During the frightening MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) era of the cold war, both sides agreed to not deploy Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems. The logic was, that if either side thought the others ABM system was going to be effective, then they would build bigger, better, faster and lots more nuclear weapons, and also more ABM systems. The escalation spiral of offensive missiles and ABMs would be insanity. Even worse was the fact that each sides military planners would likely feel that the other side might effectively counter their offensive weapons. Given that worst case nuclear war scenarios (bolt out of the blue) go from peace to full scale nuclear war in a matter of minutes, milliseconds count. Offensive systems in each country would be tweaked to the most hair trigger response.

The ABM treaty, begun in 1972 was a trust building measure that allowed for SALT, START and a host of other measures that greatly decompressed the cold war, saved everyone lots of money, and perhaps even saved the world from nuclear annihilation.

Bush unilaterally abrogated any ABM treaty in 2002.

The Russians, wanting cooperation, and thinking the U.S. would not deploy an ABM system against them, didn't protest much. Both sides benefited mightily by spending less on guns, and more on butter.

Now the Bush administration wants to put an ABM system hard up against (in aerospace defense terms) the nation of Russia. The fact that the ABM treaty existed at all gives lie to the claim that ABM systems are only defensive. The Bush administration claims the purpose of this ABM system is to protect Europe from (NON EXISTENT) Iranian missiles bearing (NON EXISTENT) Iranian nuclear warheads.

The ABM system in the Czech Republic and Poland is an offensive threat aimed at Russia. (As is the conversion of Russia's immediate neighbors to well armed NATO allies.)

Current integrated technology allows guidance of missiles launched from anywhere in Europe, and airborne, shipborne, or satellite platforms, to be directed by a radar system like that in planed for the Czech Republic. The statement that it's "only ten interceptors in Poland" is just so much nonsense.

As a kid in elementary school in the 60's, I recall practicing "duck and cover" drills, you might start teaching your kids that again today, especially if the Neocons continue in power with the election of John McCain.

Posted by: Dr. Strangelove | August 28, 2008 4:40 AM | Report abuse

Freddie "I am a proud neocon" Hiatt inadvertently spills the beans. The Republicans are counting on the Russia-Georgia crisis to hand the election to John McCain. So we have to ask ourselves - Did the Republicans fan this crisis in the first place? Is that why Karl Rove was in Latvia in July with Saakashvili and Dick Cheney's man was in Georgia right before the war? Is that why Cindy McCain and Dick Cheney went to Georgia? Are the Republicans willing to sacrifice our national security in order to win an election? Is that why we are going to see Freddie Hiatt continue to flog this crisis from now until election day?

Posted by: Mary | August 28, 2008 8:45 AM | Report abuse

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