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John McCain: Shadow President?

John McCain is taking advantage of Barack Obama’s “foreign vacation” in Hawaii and using the crisis in Georgia to showcase his foreign policy prowess.

He’s dispatched his minions, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, to Georgia.  TPM’s Greg Sargent figures,

The idea is to showcase himself as a man of action during a time of international crisis and to remind people that the world is a dangerous place that’s still filled with aggressive actors, something that the McCain camp presumably thinks will play in his favor.

McCain’s announcement of his key campaign allies’ trip abroad also seems designed to shoulder Bush aside as the primary GOP leadership figure here.

Politico‘s Jonathan Martin agress and observes, “McCain’s declaration has something of a shadow government feel to it, as though he’s sending his own emissaries into the war zone.” Over at News Hounds, Melanie finds that FOX News — or at least Neil Cavato — is treating McCain like he’s already president.  Why, they’re even covering McCain’s foreign policy speeches!

Andrew Sullivan thinks we’re getting a preview of what a President McCain would look like and he’s less than impressed:

He’s giving press conferences. He’s warning of a new Tsarist empire. You can tell what sends him into high-energy zones: a clear enemy abroad. He knows black and white; and he knows war. It gives him clarity and strength. Up next: Iran and China. Oh, the conflicts we can have …

Various comment sections have the inevitable jokes about McCain being “presumptuous” and “uppity” for acting like he’s already president, an allusion to recent controveries over Barack Obama’s overseas adventures and various campaign logos.

Even AllahPundit thinks this is a bad idea.

Do Committee members really need to conduct their own fact-finding missions in the middle of a hot war? State and Defense briefings could probably get them up to speed. And what would the reaction have been if The One had made this move first with Bayh and Webb in the surrogate roles? Would have seemed to me like a transparent attempt to squeeze a photo op from a crisis that the administration’s already straining to manage without needing any extra distractions.

Foreign policy isn’t golf.  One doesn’t get to shush the galleries.  Presidents have to juggle multiple international crises, make domestic policy decisions, and deal with political campaigns all at the same time.

I say:  More of this, please.  After months of campaigning about nothing, we’re seeing how the two men who could plausibly get elected president less than three months from now are reacting to a big time foreign policy situation.  While I’m frankly not sure what Lieberman and Graham could possibly accomplish by going to Georgia, at least we see that McCain gets how important this is.

Interestingly, as Dave Schuler and I discussed on last night’s installment of OTB Radio, there’s very little light between McCaina and Obama on this issue, at least on substance.  Obama is more low key and McCain is more emphatic about Russia’s outrageous conduct but they’re landing in pretty much the same place: work with our NATO Allies, use the G8 and WTO for leverage, and otherwise engage in diplomacy; military force is decidedly not an option.

McCain’s more visible on the issue, to be sure, which points to both his being behind in the race and thinking foreign affairs is his long suit.   Aside from Obama surrogate Bill Richardson’s bizarre suggestion of having the UN Security Council — where Russia has a veto! — solve this and McCain’s rather humorous suggestion that “In the 21st century, nations don’t invade other nations,” both teams are playing this rather well.

Photo: Shakesville

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Did anyone note the statement from Obama’s staff, suggesting the Russians had called a cease fire in direct response to a request from (pause for breath) The Annoited One?

    And isn’t ‘minions’ a perjorative in this context?

    Still, on the whole, I’m with you on this one, James. Seeing these guys in real-world situations at this stage is appropriate, and relevant.

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  2. Anderson says:

    JJ, I understand your frustration with the emptiness of the 2008 campaign, but is “doing something (however silly)” really always preferable to doing nothing?

    McCain’s hotheadedness — to say nothing of his campaign’s ties to Georgia, which may well have fueled Georgia’s foolhardy attack — may look impressive to the uninformed voter, but I would think that pundits have a duty to *inform* said voter that our real options are quite limited, and that McCain’s enthusiasm for making enemies is, uh, less than prudent.

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  3. Sam says:

    I just can’t believe that some people are still falling for McCain’s so called tough talk. Let me explain that talking tough without thinking is simply a weakness. People are dying and the man uses this opportunity to show his supposedly strong suit when in reality he has no power over the situation. Obama is on vacation and has the right to spend time with his family after working much harder than McCain who was more busy thinking about silly ads that will impress the mindless. Obama is smart enough to realize that he is not the president yet and continues to enjoy his vacation. It doesn’t mean that if he were president, he would react the same exact way. If McCain were president, he would send soldiers to die in the crisis right away.

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  4. Eric says:

    Still, on the whole, I’m with you on this one, James. Seeing these guys in real-world situations at this stage is appropriate, and relevant.

    Wait a second here. Weren’t the conservative commenters here all up in arms just a few weeks ago when Obama was touring Europe, complaining about how showy he was, and who does he think he is (after all, he’s not the president), and what do we care about what Europe thinks anyway? Bithead, you in particular were clearly pejorative about his whole trip.

    [J.J.] Now, I happen to believe all those things to be true (i.e., that going on a week long campaign trip didn’t increase his foreign policy competence, that he didn’t learn much, that his mind is made up, and that he’s trying to appeal to moderates). But the purpose of the trip wasn’t to inject Obama with instant foreign policy credentials but rather to make it easier for Americans to envision him as their president.

    [Bithead] Reluctantly, James, I’m going to disagree, here… mildly.
    I think the entire purpose of this trip was to burnish his foreign policy prospects. Certainly a week long trip won’t give him any serious experience, but with images of adoring crowds of Europian leftists, (Which as we discussed yesterday, are a sure bet….) the picture it gives back here in the states is of a wildly popular person who should be able to slide past the lack of experience because those people like him. And clearly these events were for the benefit of voters here in the states.

    Now all of a sudden, when McCain gets all “presidential” and is involving himself in foreign policy, suddenly, Bithead, you *don’t* disagree that this is a good thing for the candidates to test their foreign policy mettle? Now you suddenly don’t think this isn’t a stunt by McCain to try to “burnish his foreign policy prospects… for the benefit of voters here in the states”? Now suddenly “seeing these guys in real-world situations” is “appropriate”? I thought you guys don’t care what Europe thinks of us?

    Not that I don’t agree with you in principle, James, but the seeming double-standard here when only a few weeks ago the right-wing nuthouse had their panties in a bunch is laughable.

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  5. test says:

    the seeming double-standard here when only a few weeks ago the right-wing nuthouse had their panties in a bunch is laughable.

    No double standard here. I believe all those things about the Obama trip but didn’t criticize it as unseemly or the like.

    McCain’s hotheadedness — to say nothing of his campaign’s ties to Georgia, which may well have fueled Georgia’s foolhardy attack — may look impressive to the uninformed voter, but I would think that pundits have a duty to *inform* said voter that our real options are quite limited, and that McCain’s enthusiasm for making enemies is, uh, less than prudent.

    Certainly, McCain’s advisor had nothing to do with Russia’s actions here.

    Beyond that, McCain is taking the standard Hard Line against Russia which is well represented in respectable, Realist circles. His talk may be more bellicose than Obama’s but he’s demonstrating his grasp of the limited options.

    He’s siding with the Georgians against an illegal invader and calling for diplomatic action against Russia. He’s decidedly not calling for military action and explicitly rejected the idea that this is a relaunch of the Cold War.

    That’s not “hotheaded.”

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  6. legion says:

    Right on, Eric. This, like so many other things this campaign, is something that’s clearly “OK if you’re a Republican”. If Obama (who is also, you will recall, a US Senator) had done this, there would be a veritable Greek chorus of pundits rising up to declare that he was using a horrible human tragedy to make political hay, and that he was a scumbag for doing so*. Anyone who says otherwise is a flat-out liar.

    * – PS, McCain is doing this solely to make political hay, and he is a scumbag for doing so.

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  7. rodney dill says:

    Don’t just do something, stand there.

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  8. Anderson says:

    Certainly, McCain’s advisor had nothing to do with Russia’s actions here.

    “Certainly”?

    Russia had been pulling Georgia’s chain for some time, but Georgia stepped over the line to military attack on Ossetia, evidently under the impression that the U.S. would support Georgia.

    Where the hell did Georgia get such a notion?

    Perhaps from their highly-placed lobbyists?

    If we had real journalists, their # 1 question in all this would be, what advice did Georgia get from persons linked to the McCain campaign –and what advice are those same persons giving McCain?

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  9. James Joyner says:

    Where the hell did Georgia get such a notion?

    You really think Georgia was going to put their confidence in some advisor to a guy with maybe a 40 percent chance of becoming president five months from now? Isn’t the more plausible answer the sitting President of the United States’ firm insistence on offering Georgia NATO membership?

    And Georgia can’t exactly attack itself. South Ossetia is part of their sovereign territory and recognized as such by everybody but Russia.

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  10. Anderson says:

    James, your notions about Ossetia are interesting no doubt, but obsolete.

    As for Georgia’s confidence:

    (1) They obviously weren’t that smart.

    (2) They paid big bucks to their D.C. pals, from which they presumably thought they were getting something of value.

    (3) McCain’s policy prescriptions re: Georgia are indistinguishable from if Georgia were paying *him*.

    Investigation seems pretty appropriate to me.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    your notions about Ossetia are interesting no doubt, but obsolete.

    They’re OBE at this point but, certainly, the international community recognized SE and Abkhazia as part of Georgia before their conquest by Russia.

    McCain’s policy prescriptions re: Georgia are indistinguishable from if Georgia were paying *him*.

    They’re also indistinguishable from the Bush Administration’s and to the left of Bill Kristol and his other neocon advisers.

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  12. McMary says:

    Countries don’t invade countries in the 21st century?

    Reality check to McFull-of-it- What about when the United States invaded Iraq?

    And didn’t old fount of wisdom vote to authorize that invasion?

    It’s a wonder his teeth don’t fall out with all the lying vitriol that comes out of his mouth. Wait-maybe they have-I don’t know.

    But I do know that McCain is a dangerous ego case that wants to play soldier for the rest of his old life with our young soldiers lives and untold millions of other innocent people around the world. We can’t let this happen. Vote no to more aggression.

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  13. Fence says:

    I’m not so sure this is really McCain’s “long suit”, unless by long you mean he’s wearing britches too big for him. “I think I speak for all Americans when I say today we are all Georgians.” Oh really? Forgive me that I’ve been too busy lately to quickly read up on all of the injustices one side may have committed on the other since the Ossetians arrived in the area 700 years ago, sufficient for me to say that I feel so strongly and have such a deep understanding on this issue that I’d say I am a Georgian.

    Russia is already an enormous country, with enormous power either way. Will that really change depending on whether or not they take Ossetia? Will the oil keep flowing same as before? It isn’t like it made any difference to Russia whether or not the US completed the Gadsden Purchase. If a majority of Ossetians want to be a part of Russia, who I am to say no? I’m willing to have it explained to me why I should care, but there seems to be an awful lot of jumping to conclusions. I do accept the notion that no matter what the “right answer” is for the border there that Russia should not have resorted to the force it used. Too bad the US has blown its moral authority in that area (although it wouldn’t have mattered anyway).

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  14. Snoop Diggity-DANG-Dawg says:

    “Obama is smart enough to realize that he is not the president yet and continues to enjoy his vacation. It doesn’t mean that if he were president, he would react the same exact way.”

    GOOD one, Sam! Yeah, that Obama sure is smart. That’s exactly how his silence will be interpreted.

    A real-world international crises right in the middle of his presidential campaign and he’s smart enough to ignore it and stay on vacation in Hawaii. Very savy

    THAT’LL show ‘em!

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  15. Anderson says:

    Cf. Mark Kleiman:

    If McCain has really been talking to Saakashvili “daily,” what advice has McCain been giving him? Did he reinforce the urgent advice of the State Department and the White House that Saakashvili avoid allowing himself to be provoked into giving the Russians a pretext for invasion, or was McCain encouraging the imprudence that handed Putin the victory we and the Georgians are now trying to recover from?

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  16. Steven Donegal says:

    If McCain is showing his presidential timbre by sending Lieberman and Graham to Georgia, we are all in deep bandini.

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  17. Snoop Diggity-DANG-Dawg says:

    “If McCain is showing his presidential timbre by sending Lieberman and Graham to Georgia, we are all in deep bandini.”

    Yeah, I much prefer the way Obama shows his presidential timbre by drinking from a coconut in Waikiki. Ready to lead, indeed!

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  18. anjin-san says:

    Yeah, I much prefer the way Obama shows his presidential timbre by drinking from a coconut in Waikiki. Ready to lead, indeed!

    The right whined up a storm when Obama visited the middle east. Now that he is on vacation, they whine. Guess whining is the object of the exercise…

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  19. cian says:

    Surely the question we should be asking is does McCain help or hinder the situation by injecting himself into the middle of this growing conflict. We need to ask it because the McCain campaign isn’t. My take is that seeing a political opportunity, they’ve saddled up and galloped off to do God knows what. Afterall, he’s not president. There isn’t a damn thing he can do other than add another layer of useless noise.

    Can we really afford another 8 years of looking tough and messing up, because the way McCain is acting suggests that’s exactly what we’ll get if we make him President.

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  20. legion says:

    So, even though we all agree that there’s nothing constructive that either McCain or Obama could do for this situation, McCain exploiting it for political purposes is somehow “leadership”, while Obama not trying to make a bad situation worse is “failing to show presidential timbre”.

    Snoop is clearly representative of the sort of short-sighted moron that got Bush elected twice and will unerringly vote for McCain to continue the travesty.

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  21. Anderson says:

    I’m pretty sure, Legion, that “short sighted moron” violates the commenting policy.

    We should not mock the visually challenged.

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  22. Bithead says:

    Wait a second here. Weren’t the conservative commenters here all up in arms just a few weeks ago when Obama was touring Europe, complaining about how showy he was, and who does he think he is (after all, he’s not the president), and what do we care about what Europe thinks anyway? Bithead, you in particular were clearly pejorative about his whole trip.

    So, you honestly don’t see a substantial difference between the two?

    Clue: Making speeches to rock concert goers does not in my view, constitute demonstration of foriegn policy mettle. Sorry.

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