When you’re retired and living on your investments you do follow the markets. No matter how diversified you’ve made what remains of what you’ve made in the course of your life, when the market jumps a few hundred points in a day your stress level seems to drop. Maybe you won’t spend your final years living in a cardboard box under a freeway overpass. You’ll be fine. The morning coffee tastes pretty good – the sunshine seems nice. When the market drops a few hundred points in a morning, well, you’re not so sure about the coffee or the sunshine – and that cardboard box scenario seems far too likely.
So in the far room, each weekday, the television is tuned to the financial channel all day – with the sound off. You walk by now and then and glance at the numbers. Perhaps the constant anxiety is good for you – keeps the old heart pumping and all that. You’re not exactly living on the edge, but you know there definitely is an edge out there, and you hope you’re not nearing it.
And you know world events, and how our government reacts to those events, often causes those wild swings in the market. It’s not just monetary policy – resetting the interest rates and adjusting the availability of credit, and other means of tinkering with the money supply – it’s a pipeline blown up in Nigeria or a hurricane in the Gulf or a strike with workers at the North Sea rigs demanding this or that, or the threat of war here or there. The market reacts. And you know that if Cheney and the neoconservative crowd get their way and we bomb the snot out of Iran, to slow down their nuclear program, oil could hit five hundred dollars a barrel in a day and the world’s economy would collapse – and anything you still hold to get you through the rest of your life would be worthless. But, apart from voting in the next presidential election, all this is out of your control – and your one vote is mighty small anyway.
So that’s why the recent Russo-Georgian war has been so puzzling. The markets hardly moved – in fact, many a day the markets rose dramatically. Georgia has that major oil pipeline supplying the west running right through it, ending at the Black Sea. Georgia is centered smack in the middle of major oil and gas producers – Russia to the north, Iraq and Iran to the south, Azerbaijan immediately to the east. The Russians effectively shut down Georgia for week – and no one cared. If the markets – what people are willing to bet real money on – are one of the best indicators of what matters and what doesn’t, no matter what any politicians say, then maybe this whole thing really didn’t matter that much.
Could that be? Everyone has seen this short video clip – John McCain saying that the Russian invasion of Georgia is “the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War.” The markets shrugged – and the price of oil has dropped from a high of almost one hundred fifty dollars a barrel down to about one hundred fifteen.
His judgment does not seem to be the collective judgment. That makes him either the sole voice of truth in the world, or a hapless fool – or the third alternative, a man running for president who really, really needs an issue. If you ran a major investment firm, not that you ever will, you wouldn’t want him as your chief investment advisor.
But he may be the winner in all this.
Of course, by Sunday, August 17, things were winding down:
Russia’s president promised to start withdrawing forces from positions in Georgia on Monday, but suggested they could stay in the breakaway region at the heart of the fighting that has reignited Cold War tensions.
Top American officials said Washington would rethink its relationship with Moscow after its military drive deep into its much smaller neighbor and called for a swift Russian withdrawal.
That’s the Associated Press, and here’s the New York Times:
Russia is to begin withdrawing its troops from neighboring Georgia on Monday, two days after it signed a revised framework for a deal to halt the fighting there, which has stirred some of the deepest divisions between world powers since the cold war.
The Kremlin announced on Sunday that the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, had spoken with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who negotiated the cease-fire, and pledged that Russian forces would be pulled back on Monday.
At his Washington Monthly site, Kevin Drum is skeptical:
Well, we’ll see. I guess this all depends on whether the Russians have blown up enough Georgian infrastructure by then to satisfy their promise of leaving only after implementing those mysterious “extra security measures” they insisted on inserting into the ceasefire text.
But what did this all amount to? Aside from giving McCain an issue, Drum argues the Russians lost:
My take, roughly, is that Putin screwed up. The West was never going to actively approve of the Russian invasion, but if Putin had limited himself to a short, sharp clash in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would have been an almost unalloyed victory. The murky status of the provinces combined with the fact that Saakashvili sent in troops first would have kept Western reaction to a minimum, and Russia’s message would still have been sent loud and clear: don’t mess with us in our sphere of influence.
But then Putin got greedy – or just made a mistake – and sent Russian troops into Georgia proper. This was almost certainly militarily unnecessary, and it succeeded mainly in uniting virtually everyone in outrage against Russian aggression. Putin can pretend all he wants that he doesn’t care about Western opinion, but he obviously does – and what’s more, Western unity makes a difference in concrete terms too. Poland’s quick turnaround on missile defense is probably just the first example of this. The U.S. has gotten lots of bad reviews for its handling of the situation, but in the end, the countries on Russia’s border are more firmly in our camp now than they were even before the war.
And Drum also argues that, militarily, this was a mistake:
Sure, the Russian Army is in better condition than it was ten years ago, but it’s clear now that its performance in Georgia was still only so-so, despite the fact that Georgia is a minuscule country and the Russians have had this operation planned and ready to go at a moment’s notice for weeks (maybe months).
In the end, Russia is still basically Mexico with nukes, and their ability to project power even along their own borders is limited. After Georgia, it’s going to be even harder. Putin has a reputation for shrewdness, but he should have quit while he was ahead.
Over at Talk Left, “Big Tent Democrat” agues the other way:
It was foolish to argue, as some did, the Russia intended to occupy Georgia. It was foolish because now, when Russia moves back to South Ossetia and the periphery permitted by the ceasefire, it will have “shown restraint.” Russia accomplished its goals in my opinion.
Admittedly, Condoleezza Rice thinks otherwise, as she said on Fox News Sunday that Russia’s reputation as a modern country ready to integrate into the West “is, frankly, in tatters.”
“Big Tent Democrat” scoffs at that idea:
Well, coming from Condi Rice, this means next to nothing frankly and I am not at all sure what it is supposed to mean to Russia. Drum says “Putin cares what the West thinks.” On one level, I agree with him. He wants the West to think that expanding into Russia’s “Near Abroad” is not the same thing as expanding NATO into Poland and the Baltic states. That message was delivered.
Kevin argues “the countries on Russia’s border are more firmly in our camp now than they were even before the war.” I say, so what?
The issue is not the willingness of Georgia to join NATO, etc. The issue is Europe’s willingness to go along with such an expansion. My own view is that, five months from now, when George Bush is no longer President, no one in Europe will want any part of this problem. Words are easy, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy prove…
Yeah, Sarkozy said there would be “serious consequences” for relations between Russia and the EU if Russian compliance was not “rapid and complete,” and Merkel warned that “this process should not drag out for weeks.”
“Big Tent Democrat” argues they only said all that after the Russians made a move to leave, so it’s a bit of a dance. And Georgia’s territorial dispute is hardly resolved.
There is much more detail at the link, but it comes down to this:
This action from Russia’s perspective was not to convince Georgia or Poland to be more pro-Russian. Drum really misunderstands that. The point was to draw a line in the sand – for the West. I think Putin made his point. And a year from now, we’ll see that Georgia lost this encounter and Putin won.
And maybe a year from now people will forget it ever happened – and as far as the markets are concerned, even if it did happen, it was not a big deal, no matter what McCain says.
But that lead back to the guy who said it was a big deal, John McCain. As discussed previously in these pages, now Joe Lauria in the Huffington Post is raising the question at a site people actually read, with Did McCain Help Bait Russia into Georgia?
He is clear enough:
The US stood on the sidelines when Russia indeed punished Georgia. Georgian civilians at first told Western reporters they were angry at America for not coming to their aid. Then several days later many started to blame Saakashvili for creating such a mess.
It seems hard to believe he would have tried to seize South Ossetia if he were not led to believe he had American backing. According to Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, joint US-Georgian military exercises code-named Immediate Response ended just hours before Georgian troops moved into the province.
Churkin says the Americans gave Saakashvili a “green light.” But there was no immediate response from the United States.
It looks like Saakashvili and Russia were both set up.
All roads lead to John McCain:
The Georgian crisis has created a campaign issue McCain can run on. McCain’s best chance to win, unless Obama self-destructs, is to portray himself as the Cold War-era war hero ready to do battle again against our old Cold War adversary. He stood up to Russia while his opponent was out fishing in Hawaii.
A compliant media will keep the phony Russian threat an issue throughout the campaign. It could even raise Condi Rice’s vice-presidential fortunes, as her only expertise was the former Soviet Union. The original Cold War was based on manufactured threats. The new trumped up threats about Russia will make Condi’s experience “relevant” again. They can both run on Russia.
So did the Bush administration provoke Moscow to help elect McCain and keep neo-conservative foreign policy alive? Was McCain himself involved in setting this Russian bear trap?
Lauria cites this Washington Post item – on April 17, McCain had a telephone conversation with Georgian President Saakashvili, set up by McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, who at the time was still being paid by Saakashvili as a registered foreign agent for Georgia. And Lauria notes that after the conversation, McCain issued a statement, written by Scheunemann. That statement warned Russia over Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia, and later that day, Scheunemann’s Orion Strategies lobbying firm signed a new two hundred grand deal with Georgia. As Lauria says – “All in a day’s work.”
Lauria gives this assessment:
Scheunemann is a leading neo-conservative lobbyist for oil companies and arms manufacturers who has enriched himself and his clients by pushing for war, notably in Iraq. He has been an important player in Georgia, where the United States has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and military hardware, mostly to protect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that bypasses Russia and Iran on its way to Turkey.
The US has more than a hundred military advisers in the country and US Special Forces have trained the Georgian military. The Bush administration and Scheunemann were championing Georgia’s bid to join NATO. The administration has angered Russia by becoming so heavily involved in Moscow’s backyard in competition for pipeline routes.
But then American officials say they privately told Saakashvili not to provoke Russia, and say Rice was in Tbilisi last month and told Saakashvili not to start a war.
But the New York Times had reported this:
Ms. Rice’s … visit to Tbilisi demonstrates the accumulation of years of mixed messages may have made the American warnings fall on deaf ears. The United States took a series of steps that emboldened Georgia: sending advisers to build up the Georgian military, including an exercise last month with more than 1,000 American troops; pressing hard to bring Georgia into the NATO orbit … and loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia’s separatist enclaves.
What was Saakashvili to think? Here’s the conspiracy theory from Lauria:
Scheunemann organized McCann’s two trips to Georgia and set up that phone call. Did Scheunemann and McCain contribute to Saakashvili’s impression that the US would come to his rescue?
We may never know the answer to that question. But we can be certain that the phony “resurgent Russian threat” narrative, if the electorate buys it, could propel John McCain into the White House, unless it is exposed as the ploy it seems to be.
It seems someone won here – and national security conservatives will eat this up, and anyone who responds to fear, and McCain could ride that to victory.
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers says traditional conservatives are, or should be, appalled:
True conservatives/realists recognize that the US has few national interests in Georgia and even less in going out of our way to piss off the Russian bear. Georgia is a poor, isolated, backwater country that has throughout modern history been within Russia’s sphere of influence, much as the Caribbean and Central American nations have been within America’s sphere of influence. Moreover, even if things were different on that score, there nothing we can effectively do to coerce Russia to act differently. The realist recognizes this as a windmill at which we should not attempt to tilt.
But the romantic Wilsonian interventionists (i.e., unchastened neocons) believe we should take on any burden and any cause that appeals to our sense of democratic morality, irrespective of how costly and how damaging such rhetoric and actions may be. US foreign policy is in desperate need of a dose of realism and restraint. We are not a hegemonic empire; we are at heart a commercially-based power whose ultimate demise will come not from challenges from Russia or China but from our own overreaching.
While I loathe the prospects of Obama’s left-wing economic prescriptions and what they may entail for the country, I do find comfort in the idea that he would actually exercise much more restraint and rectitude in our foreign policies.
But restraint and rectitude are just not what we do. They accuse Obama of being an out-of-touch elitist and not really an American (see this amusing recap of that whole business) – but it is his natural restraint and rectitude that may be what really makes him so very un-American.
Both Obama and McCain were out here in Southern California for the August 16 quasi-debate on their values and faith, and MSNBC’s political analyst Chuck Todd said this was one reason Obama lost that debate, badly:
The two answered the Supreme Court justice question VERY differently, with Obama seemingly trying to say a nice thing or two about justices he disagreed with, while McCain went right to pander mode in his answer. And yet, McCain’s straightforward answer easily penetrated while Obama’s did not.
Chuck basically says that unless you pander in sound-bites, you lose. If you show respect for your opponent’s views, you lose. However defensible this is as analysis, it isn’t part of the solution, is it?
Well, we seem to be dealing with quite crazy people. See this video clip making the rounds – from the BBC, Georgian President Saakashvili deep in a serious conversation trying to save his heroic little country, while stuffing his necktie in his mouth and chewing on it. Try to put that in the eventual Oliver Stone movie about all this – the studio folks will leave that on the cutting room floor – too over the top, too Doctor Strangelove.
At Hullabaloo, Digby has a more serious take on all this:
These last few years have done grave harm, in more ways than we can imagine right now, to global stability. The US went out of its way to upend the delicate post war agreement against wars of aggression with this misbegotten Bush Doctrine of preventive war. It was an error of epic proportions. And it exposed something very ugly about us at the moment when we had the chance to transcend our own past sins and become an evolved, modern superpower devoted to international law and cooperation. Instead we proved ourselves to be no more responsible or mature than any other third-rate empire with a chance to kick ass and prove its strength through brute violence.
This was a post partisan choice. The Democrats did not, as a whole, choose to fight this impulse. Most of them probably didn’t want to. But there are degrees of aggressive, blustery, belligerent hypocrisy and there is nobody who exemplifies it more than John McCain, who makes even Bush look calm and deliberate by contrast.
And she says that because of this article in the Sunday New York Times, Response to 9/11 Offers Outline of a McCain Doctrine:
Senator John McCain arrived late at his Senate office on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. “This is war,” he murmured to his aides. The sound of scrambling fighter planes rattled the windows, sending a tremor of panic through the room.
Within hours, Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War hero and famed straight talker of the 2000 Republican primary, had taken on a new role: the leading advocate of taking the American retaliation against Al Qaeda far beyond Afghanistan. In a marathon of television and radio appearances, Mr. McCain recited a short list of other countries said to support terrorism, invariably including Iraq, Iran and Syria.
“There is a system out there or network, and that network is going to have to be attacked,” Mr. McCain said the next morning on ABC News. “It isn’t just Afghanistan,” he added, on MSNBC. “I don’t think if you got bin Laden tomorrow that the threat has disappeared,” he said on CBS, pointing toward other countries in the Middle East.
Within a month he made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: “Next up, Baghdad!”
Got that? He saw a series of wars we could fight, and should – one country right after another.
The implications are obvious:
Now, as Mr. McCain prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination, his response to the attacks of Sept. 11 opens a window onto how he might approach the gravest responsibilities of a potential commander in chief. Like many, he immediately recalibrated his assessment of the unseen risks to America’s security. But he also began to suggest that he saw a new “opportunity” to deter other potential foes by punishing not only Al Qaeda but also Iraq.
“Just as Sept. 11 revolutionized our resolve to defeat our enemies, so has it brought into focus the opportunities we now have to secure and expand our freedom,” Mr. McCain told a NATO conference in Munich in early 2002, urging the Europeans to join what he portrayed as an all but certain assault on Saddam Hussein. “A better world is already emerging from the rubble.”
Digby offers this:
Frankly, I find that scarier than Dick Cheney, who I don’t think actually believes (or cares) about a “better world” just one that’s safe for multinational corporations. Bush is a vacant child who parrots talking points that make him feel like a man.
McCain actually believes this drivel.
And she quotes the Times:
To his admirers, Mr. McCain’s tough response to Sept. 11 is at the heart of his appeal. They argue that he displayed the same decisiveness again last week in his swift calls to penalize Russia for its incursion into Georgia, in part by sending peacekeepers to police its border.
His critics charge that the emotion of Sept. 11 overwhelmed his former cool-eyed caution about deploying American troops without a clear national interest and a well-defined exit, turning him into a tool of the Bush administration in its push for a war to transform the region.
“He has the personality of a fighter pilot: when somebody stings you, you want to strike out,” said retired Gen. John H. Johns, a former friend and supporter of Mr. McCain who turned against him over the Iraq war. “Just like the American people, his reaction was: show me somebody to hit.”
Whether through ideology or instinct, though, Mr. McCain began making his case for invading Iraq to the public more than six months before the White House began to do the same. He drew on principles he learned growing up in a military family and on conclusions he formed as a prisoner in North Vietnam. He also returned to a conviction about “the common identity” of dangerous autocracies as far-flung as Serbia and North Korea that he had developed consulting with hawkish foreign policy thinkers to help sharpen the themes of his 2000 presidential campaign.
And she asks the obvious question. Do we need a president whose first reaction is “show me somebody to hit?”
McCain is betting the farm that most people want one of those – and he may be right. All you do is assert, over and over, that Obama’s restraint and thoughtfulness is just weird – not just elitist, but somehow not like most Americans feel and think. That makes him just too damned… foreign. He’s not like the rest of us. You don’t even have to mention he’s black, as that’s not the issue. He’s thoughtful and keeps his emotions in check – and that is just too alien to us all.
I remember writing a long time ago that John McCain is the man George W. Bush was pretending to be, right down to the flight suit. The Real Thing is actually far more dangerous than the cheap imitation. If he wins this thing, we could find ourselves in a very, very serious crisis, of both economic stability and national security – and very likely of our government itself. This man is unstable.
Yeah, but he doesn’t stuff his necktie in his mouth and chew on it – or hasn’t yet been caught on camera doing that.
God knows how the markets would react to the reactive and preemptive series of wars of a McCain presidency. The cardboard box under the freeway overpass might be home soon.
Digby says not to worry:
The funny thing is that I don’t think the Big Money Boys expect the Republicans to win this election so they didn’t think there was much danger in putting Buck Turgidson on the ballot. You can’t help but wonder if they are having some second thoughts about allowing for even that slim possibility.
You remember Buck from Air Force General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) from Doctor Strangelove – “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”
We’ll see how the markets react as things progress. See you under the freeway.