Friday, September 12, 2008

Will the Next President Inherit a New Cold War?

Presidential Candidates Must Be Quizzed on How They Would Handle an Expansionist Russia

America is now fully engulfed in election fever.  Republicans are energized by their ticket, Democrats have tasted blood in their own mouths and are responding to the ring of the bell.

The horse race, however, is obscuring from our view important events that will inform voters on Election Day.  Those who declare that a President McCain would merely execute the Bush foreign policy ignore one obvious and important reality - President Bush has not had to develop a comprehensive foreign policy doctrine to address a post-Soviet expansionist Russia.

Grappling with the enigma of Russia's new foreign policy will be the number one challenge of our next president.  It intersects with all other concerns.  Without safety and security, economic concerns and other social issues become secondary.  There is a reason that Thomas Jefferson ordered his causes as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". There is no duty higher than meeting the potential threat of a waking Russian bear. 

At its most benign, Russia intends only to achieve some measure of energy security with its new policy and it has no interest in engaging in a full-scale Cold War.  The malignant and more probable reality is that the old Soviet heart of Russia's power elite sings again with the dream of expansion.  Emboldened by America's low standing in the halls of power around the world, it is likely that they have foreseen a window of opportunity that must be seized.

Russia's actions - in the recent days, weeks and months - are not isolated, and should be seen as part of a broader strategy.  They can also not be excused any longer as appeasement of hard-liners, as some have suggested in the past.  It also makes very little sense to read Russian actions as a temporary challenge to the United States' response to Russia's invasion of Georgia, namely sending our warships into the Black Sea.

The Venezuelan-Russian alliance could also be seen as advantageous for a Russia that has its mind set on influencing the world's energy resource supply and delivery.  But with Venezuela being a staunch enemy to the United States, Russia has no fear in "losing" any battle for oil rights or access to supply to America.

By deduction, we know there is more at work within the Russian strategy.  

In interpersonal terms, the relationship between Venezuela and Russia has just gone from holding hands to sleeping over.  If Russia was only leaving a toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet we could rest at night.  Tu-160 Blackjack long-range strategic bombers, capable of carrying nuclear payloads, landed in Venezuela yesterday, with an official explanation that they will be conducting training flights.  That's a toothbrush with operational range capable of delivering a first-strike nuclear payload Washington, D.C.

The Tu-160s arrived two days after joint Venezuelan-Russian naval exercises were announced for later this year - to be held in the Caribbean - and the same day that Venezuelan strongman President Hugo Chavez issued a 72-hour order to the United States ambassador to leave the country.

Despite official statements to the contrary, undoubtedly it has already occurred to officials at the State Department and the Department of Defense that Russia may be establishing its right to conduct military training exercises in our hemisphere for the purpose of establishing a more permanent military presence over time. 

In the past, it has only been the ability of the United States to project its power that has given us leverage in moments of diplomatic crisis.  What effect would a similar Russian ability have on international relations?  It would be foolish to assume that Russia has no such intentions of following the model the United States has already demonstrated to be a pattern for power expansion.

Understated comment of the week: It would be destabilizing.

Even if the Russians do not establish a more permanent military presence in South America, it has been clear over the preceding year that they are very comfortable in taking openly hostile statements in opposition to United States policy.  The knee-jerk response to our designs to build a missile defense system in Europe should have reminded policymakers that Russia is still very aware that its nuclear arsenal gives it power. 

Even a rusting giant can earn superpower respect at the negotiating table when their words are backed by atomic weapons.  The only piece that has been missing from Russia's application of its yet-to-be-determined foreign policy doctrine, was that the world had assumed that Russia was more concerned with economic growth than power expansion.  By invading Georgia, the threat that Russia is capable of using force to achieve its goals was given credibility.

We can leave the intricate machine of policy implementation and formation up to experts who have far more information than those of us without a daily briefing could ever gather.  We cannot, though, put off the hitting the presidential candidates on the "what ifs". Answers to these hard questions are not optional, and journalists should not accept less than directness or shy away from explaining to their readers, viewers and listeners why these topics are important.  The stakes are too high to move forward in blissful ignorance.

This is cross-posted at Dancing With Bears ( 

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