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Political Animal

Playing Defense

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/20/2008

Back before Sept. 11, the main foreign policy priority (and when I say "foreign policy," I mean "money in the defense budget") for the Bush administration was missile defense. No matter that all the experts were telling George W. Bush that missile defense was less of a bother than terrorism--Bush wanted a national missile defense system, and little was going to get in his way to stop it.

Never mind that it raised the hackles of the Chinese and underscored how fragile the situation was with Taiwan, and never mind that the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty had outlawed such a thing, which was giving Russia pause. Bush saw national missile defense as his legacy and started pushing any way possible to get it--until September 2001.

Another thing we have seen with Bush, who misses no opportunity to work the word "freedom" into a speech, despite a limited grasp of its actual definition, is that once he has a goal, any new development, any change in the weather, any opportunity becomes yet another reason he should get what he wants. It's like his first tax cut--if you needed money to fill your tank because the price of gas went up, Bush said, "Pass my tax cut and you'll have that money for gas." When California was suffering through its energy crisis (that we later discovered was artificially created via Bush's pals Kenneth Lay and Enron), Bush said to pass his tax cut, and you'd have money to pay your electricity bills. And so on.

Fast-forward eight years, through two wars and the country's worst foreign policy debacle in 40 years, and when Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, what's the first thing that comes to Bush's mind?

Not that hard to guess, isn't it?

Here we are again, with Bush wanting to restart the Cold War after baiting the Western-educated president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, with probably one too many invocations of "freedom" and a push to get the former Soviet state into NATO. As one senior administration official put it to the McClatchy newspapers, "The president was writing checks to the Georgians without knowing what he had in the bank." As it turned out, the Navy ships Bush sent steaming to send "humanitarian aid" to Georgia have to cross a bottleneck first: Turkey controls access to the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles Strait, and Bush hadn't bothered to wait for clearance from the Turks, as required by the 1936 Montreux convention.

This isn't, if you'll recall, the first time Bush has taken the Turks for granted. When pushing for the start of the Iraq war, Bush gambled that the Turks would let the United States use the joint military bases in eastern Turkey as staging points for the ground invasion, only to find the Turks adamantly opposed to it. Turkish newspapers in 2003 were labeling the Bush administration "arrogant."

Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Mark Parris, who served in Ankara from 1997 to 2000, says we only think about Turkey "when we realize we need them for something," showing once again that the administration that bragged about being filled with "grownups" when it came to power back in January of 2001 still can't get it right eight years later. It really is as if they have a literal aversion to thinking things through.

Vladimir Putin obviously gauged the measure of the man who failed to finish the job in Afghanistan and poured U.S. lives, influence, and reputation into a hole in the ground in Iraq, and decided that now was the time to move, while America was stretched out and pinned down. Bush, the tough-talking Texan president who pranced on an aircraft carrier deck in front of a mission: accomplished banner, has become the ultimate cliché: all hat and no cattle.

The other disturbing development with the Georgian saga is its effects on the 2008 presidential race. Already commentators have begun the familiar refrain that these events "are good for McCain," because supposedly foreign policy is his strong suit, despite often having trouble distinguishing Sunni from Shiite. Perhaps McCain feels stronger on the issue because of his senior foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann's expertise on the subject--Scheunemann's lobbying company, Orion Strategies, has taken more than $730,000 from Georgia since 2001, and Scheunemann reported last year that he was lobbying the senator on the country's behalf while he was working for the McCain campaign at the same time.

As Andrew Tilghman of Talking Points Memo pointed out, McCain was on the phone with Saakashvili on April 17, which was the same day Georgia signed a $200,000 lobbying contract with Scheunemann's firm--which essentially consists of Scheunemann and his partner Mike Mitchell. It wasn't until May 15 that McCain decided to crack down on all the lobbyists inside his campaign doing side work as staffers (or perhaps it was the other way around).

In America, we use the old-fashioned term "conflict of interests" to describe situations such as these. It is no way to run a superpower's foreign policy. H

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