One of the less attractive features of modern politics is the way that disaster, tragedy and bloodshed become fuel for speculation about political advantage. The war in Georgia is no exception, with commentators now starting to discuss the impact it might have on the United States presidential race. In The Australian today, Geoff Elliott reports that the McCain campaign is trying to capitalise on the crisis:

The McCain camp emailed journalists yesterday, quoting the widespread commentary from political observers in the US media that Senator McCain was more intimate with the crisis playing out after more than a decade of public pronouncements in which he has expressed deep concern about Russian Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin.

To date, the foreign policy differences between the two candidates have been viewed mostly in terms of the middle east, particularly Iran, with McCain as the representative of the “bomb first, ask questions afterwards” school and Obama the proponent of “negotiations even with America’s enemies”.

But even Iran is small beer compared to the issues now opening up in the Georgian conflict. War with Iran would be an incredibly messy business, but a willingness to provoke war with Russia suggests nothing short of criminal insanity.

Yet this is the road down which, rhetorically at least, McCain seems to be going. According to yesterday’s New York Times his “increasingly hard line … against Russia” has involved “stances that have often gone well beyond those of the Bush administration” – perhaps assisted by the fact that his top foreign policy adviser is a former paid lobbyist for the Georgian government.

Whatever its dangers as policy, McCain’s position seems unlikely to hurt him politically. Nuances invariably get forgotten when there’s a war on, and American public opinion is strongly pro-Georgian — due in part no doubt to the absurdly one-sided media coverage, which does everything it can to obscure the basic facts that the Ossetians don’t want to be part of Georgia and the Georgians started the war by attacking them.

This can be seen as further evidence for the “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus” thesis — coverage in Europe has been much more balanced. It also reflects the fact that Americans don’t much like talking about self-determination, for fear of seeming to condone the secession of the confederacy that provoked their own civil war (the fact that there was a confederate state called Georgia might bring the analogy more readily to mind).

For the moment, Obama is being dragged along in McCain’s wake. He must be hoping that in time the real horror of war will become more apparent, and voters will realise that it is more than just a political football, and that a candidate who is pledged not to use it as a first resort has something going for him.

Peter Fray

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