Monday, May 05, 2008

Picking an Unnecessary Fight: McCain Wants to Boot Russia From the G-8!

Not Only Is His Idea Unrealistic -- The Other Seven Members of Elite Group of Industrialized Nations Won't Agree to It -- But Isolating the World's Second-Largest Nuclear Power Would Make It Even More Hostile Toward the West Than it Already Is

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) ...

Republican presidential nominee-elect John McCain answers a question during a town hall-style discussion on health care while campaigning Friday in Denver, Colorado. But at least one of his foreign-policy ideas is raising eyebrows: In a speech he made back in March, McCain called for the ouster of Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized democracies -- a proposal that has no chance of being implemented, because G-8 rules require a unanimous consensus. But more importantly, McCain's proposal would further isolate Russia -- and likely worsen already-sour relations between Moscow and the West under its new president, Dimitry Medvedev. (Photo: Mark Leffingwell/Reuters)

By Matt Stearns and Warren P. Strobel
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- John McCain dropped a little-noticed bombshell into his March foreign-policy address: Boot Russia from the G-8, the elite club of leading industrial democracies whose leaders try to coordinate economic policies.

One major problem: He can't do it because the other G-8 nations won't let him.

But the fact that the Republican presidential nominee-elect is proposing to try -- risking a return to Cold War-style tensions with the world's second-largest nuclear power after 20 years of often-prickly partnership -- raises questions about McCain's judgment.

It also underscores that many of his top foreign-policy advisers are of the same neo-conservative school that promoted the war in Iraq, argue for a tougher stance toward Iran and are skeptical of negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear program.

The Group of Eight, or G-8, as it's popularly known, makes decisions by consensus, so no single nation can kick out another. Most experts say the six other countries -- Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and Canada -- would never agree to toss out Russia, given their close economic ties to their neighbor.

Any G-8 Decisions Must Be Unanimous -- Or It's 'No Go'

A senior U.S. official who deals with Russia policy said that even Moscow would have to approve of its own ouster, given how the G-8 works.

"It's not even a theoretical discussion. It's an impossible discussion," said the senior official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "It's just a dumb thing."

Aside from that, many wonder whether McCain's suggestion would be wise policy. They fear that if McCain is elected and follows through on an attempt to toss Russia from the group, it could further anger and isolate Russia, which, under outgoing President Vladimir Putin, has been increasingly assertive on the world stage, autocratic within its borders and is the second-largest producer of the hydrocarbons that feed the world's energy needs.

[That's not likely to change under Putin's successor, Dimitry Medvedev, who will be sworn in as president on Wednesday, while Putin will remain a "heartbeat away from the presidency" as Russia's new prime minister. Under Russia's post-Soviet Constitution -- pushed through by Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in 1993 -- there is no vice president; the prime minister is first in the line of succession to the presidency.]

"In Europe, there's very little support ... for a policy like that," said Stephen Larrabee, an expert on Europe and Russia at the Rand Corporation, a Washington-based think tank. "It's too late in the game to try and oust Russia."

Hard-Line Neoconservatives Reasserting Themselves on McCain's Foreign Policy Team

The proposal also seems at odds with the theme of McCain's speech, which promised a less unilateral approach to world affairs than the Bush White House has pursued.

That could reflect tension between two Republican foreign-policy camps vying for influence in McCain's campaign: the pragmatic realists and the hard-line neoconservatives -- with the neocons ascendant for now on U.S. policy toward Russia.

"There are a lot of important issues that we need Russia's support on," said Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a center-right think tank. "What's to be gained by tossing Russia out? We feel more self-righteous about ourselves?"

Randy Scheunemann, the foreign-policy director for McCain's campaign, acknowledged that "there would be very vigorous discussion" within the G-8 of a proposal to exclude Russia. But, he said, Russia was "on a different political and economic trajectory" when it joined the group a decade ago, and he said it's unlikely that the same invitation would be extended today.

Scheunemann vigorously disputed that the proposal is a product of McCain's neoconservative advisers. McCain's position on the issue dates back to 2003, he said.

Authoritarian Russia Has Long Been an 'Odd Fit' for G-8

The G-8 is an informal alliance of the world's leading industrialized democracies. Leaders gather annually to discuss a broad range of global issues, from the economy to security to the environment. Ministers from member governments then coordinate policies behind the scenes in accordance with decisions taken at the annual summits.

The alliance was known for years as the G-7 until Russia was admitted in 1997, at the behest of the Clinton administration, as a way to encourage further democratic and economic reforms under Yeltsin.

Russia has always been an odd fit for the group. While it's risen in recent years to join the ranks of the world's top 10 economies, that's due to its energy exports, not its modest industrial capacity. And its experiment with democracy has gone into reverse in recent years, which makes it doubly out of step with the seven industrial democracies.

McCain's proposal addresses concerns about Russia's behavior, which became more adversarial under Putin, [who is likely to remain Russia's dominant figure as prime minister and leader of the ruling United Russia Party, even though Medvedev, as president, will constitutionally hold the real executive power].

Examples include Moscow's meddling in the affairs of its ex-Soviet republic neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia; its threat to one again aim missiles at Western Europe in response to President Bush's plans for a Europe-based missile defense; and its crackdown on political dissent.

[There is also Putin's reported warning to the United States during a visit to Iran last fall -- first made public by the Hong Kong-based news site Asia Times Online and picked up by The 'Skeeter Bites Report -- that if Washington launches a military strike against Iran, Russia would regard it as an attack on Russia itself -- raising the specter of a Cold-War-style direct military confrontation between Moscow and Washington.]

Russia Is Too Important a Player on the World Stage to Isolate

"It's not from left field," said Derek Chollet, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan foreign-policy research institution. "As Russia has de-democratized, there's been this whole question of, 'What do we do?' The title is industrialized democracies. If Russia is drifting away from democracy, what do we do with it?"

But McCain's solution "on a scale of one to 10 of possible action, is going to 11," Chollet said.

Instead, "you just have to be cold-hearted about this," said Colin Bradford, an expert in global governance at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington-based think tank. "We all believe in human rights and democracy. But it doesn't matter what the internal regime looks like. You need them at the table. We've got to figure out the incentives" that will make Russia behave better.

Some agree with McCain's approach. Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said McCain's proposal was "right on the money."

"It sends Russia a strong message to stop behaving the way it does," Cohen said. "As long as Russia doesn't behave like a democracy, why should it be in the G-8?"

Cohen added that there are plenty of other forums for Russia to be heard in the world, including bilateral talks, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

McCain No Fan of Putin -- But What About Medvedev?

McCain clearly dislikes Putin. A line he likes to use on the campaign trail is that while Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul, McCain looked into Putin's eyes and "saw three letters: K-G-B." Putin was a longtime officer in the Soviet intelligence service.

The feeling appears mutual: McCain and campaign friend Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut [who still votes with the Democrats, but has threatened on numerous occasions to defect to the GOP over the Iraq war] regaled reporters a few months ago with a story of the conference in Munich, Germany, "where Putin last year chose to give his first real strong anti-American speech ...when you saw a real change," McCain said. "He looked over and glared at me and Joe in the front row a couple of times."

That may be because McCain and Lieberman had sponsored a bill in 2005 urging what McCain is proposing anew: that Russia's G-8 membership be suspended.

[But what about Putin's successor? Said by those who know him to be a mild-mannered person, Medvedev is considered to be a moderate liberal pragmatic, an able administrator and a loyalist of Putin. He is also known as a leader of "the clan of St.Petersburg lawyers," one of several political groups formed around Putin during his presidency.

[Medvedev became one of the politicians closest to Putin; he was head of Putin's presidential election campaign in 2000. Following Putin's election, Medvedev was appointed chairman of the board of directors of Gazprom, Russia's monopoly gas company.

[In October 2003, he became Putin's chief of staff, rising to first deputy prime minister a year later.

[At age 42, Medvedev will be the youngest head of state in Russia's history since the era of the czars. The youngest ever was Emperor Ivan VI, who ascended to the throne in 1740 while only a one-year-old infant after his great-aunt, Empress Anna Ioannovna, died of kidney failure. But Ivan's reign was very short-lived; he was ousted a year later by Elizabeth Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great, whom most Russians considered the legitimate heir to the throne.]

What's striking about McCain's proposal is how far it is from the Bush administration's long effort to engage Putin. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also have offered tough rhetoric on Russia -- but nowhere near as tough as McCain.

Of course, Kuchins said, "they're all on the campaign trail. Bush has to actually govern."

(Additional commentary -- in brackets -- by Skeeter Sanders.)

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Volume III, Number 30
Guest Commentary Copyright 2008, McClatchy Newspapers.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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