The conflict between Russia and Georgia came just in time for Barack Obama.
Despite John McCain’s efforts to exploit concern about the Russian military assault on its neighbor — a former Soviet state — the Republican candidate comes across as all bluster. Indeed, considering the potential consequences of a wrong move in what could turn out to be a high-stakes game of nuclear positioning, the Arizona’s senator’s cowboy-without-a-plan act ought not inspire much confidence.
By the same token, Obama’s diplomat-without-a-plan act is only slightly more comforting. And it certainly will not win the Democrat many votes in and of itself.
So why has the conflict come just in time for Obama?
Because it forces him to get serious about making a vice-presidential pick.
After weeks of arguing tire inflation and who is more Paris Hiltony, both Obama and McCain have been forced by global developments to try and appear presidential.
And the most presidential decision either man will be making in the next two weeks involves the selection of a running-mate.
The events on the Black Sea coast should put an end to the Obama camp’s “electoral-map” approach to the task.
Perhaps during the silly season of mid-summer, it was reasonable to talk about selecting a running mate like Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who might help tip the balance in a teetering red state, or Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who might at least create the fantasy of tipping the balance in an even redder state. It might even have been possible — if not quite realistic — to suggest that an Indiana Senator Evan Bayh could make an Obama-led ticket more attractive to skeptical voters in the Great Lakes states.
But the prospect that the next president might, on January 20, 2009, be confronted with the immediate challenge of a resurgent Russia, and all of the geopolitical consequences of such a development, should put an end to the discussion of putting a Kaine or a Sebelius, or even a Bayh, on the ticket.
Obama has spent three and a half years in the Senate.
He only recently completed his first major tour of global hotspots and, while that trek went well, he did npot even alight in Russia, China or India — let alone Georgia or the next trouble zone.
The Democrat who would be president is going to have to pick a running-mate who can, as they say, “hit the ground running.”
Translation: Treat New York Senator Hillary Clinton, whose international experience is more credible than her critics have even been willing to acknowledge, a little more seriously.
And treat Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden, D-Delaware, a man with 35 years of foreign-policy experience, with a focus on the Soviet Union and its successors, a lot more seriously.
Biden has issues a string of thoughtful statements about the situation in South Ossetia. And on Tuesday he penned a tough-and-knowing opinion piece for the Financial Times newspaper in which the senior senator bluntly addressed Russia’s leaders — in language they are far more likely to take seriously than anything coming from the McCain or Obama camps.
“For Moscow, the most obvious casualty of the fighting could be the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 – supposedly the crown jewel in the country’s campaign to reinvent itself. Sochi is only a few miles from the border with Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia. Regardless of any political consequences, if fighting spreads, it could drive up insurance rates for the games to the point that it becomes prohibitively expensive to hold the Olympics in the region at all,” wrote Biden.
“Russia may face other costly consequences for the violence,” the senator added. “Vladimir Putin’s plans to make Moscow an international financial centre may evaporate as the prospect of sanctions on the country rears its head. Western financial institutions, which have done little to expose evidence of official Russian corruption, may start pursuing the issue much more publicly.”
Biden concluded his “Russia Must Stand Down” call for by explaining that:
“Georgia has made remarkable political and economic progress since the country’s transition to democracy. The fighting will inevitably slow that progress, and exact a heavy toll in lives and treasure. But, however severe the damage, Georgia will rebuild – and the United States and Europe must help. The stakes in this conflict are as high as the peaks of the Caucasus.
“The only hope for preventing this crisis from becoming a calamity for Russia’s relationship with the west is for Moscow to immediately ceasefire, pull back its forces and agree to negotiations brokered by the international community – all steps that the Georgian government has agreed to. If the fighting continues, this moment could emerge as a turning point in the west’s relationship with Moscow, and deny Russia the international standing it seeks. That is not the future the United States or Europe want – but it is the future Russia may get if it does not stand down and live up to its responsibilities as a force for progress.”
One may agree or disagree with Biden on specifics.
But his awareness of the issues that are at stake and the confidence with which he addresses them is not merely vice presidential.
It is more presidential than that of the current president or the major-party nominees to replace him.
And that makes Joe Biden what Barack Obama needs at this point: a running-mate who can play not just on the stage of a swing state but who on the global stage where the next administration will be required to perform immediately.