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Obama's Russia Opportunity

Let's be honest--with the possible exception of that Saddleback forum (on which I hold the minority view), last week was not a good one for Obama. McCain looked engaged and authoritative on the Georgia crisis, despite the tawdriness of his pronouncements, while Obama seemed AWOL. Mike was exactly right on this--though it wasn't necessarily Obama's fault (I mostly blame an unfortunate coincidence of vacation timing), the atmospherics were lousy for a candidate who still has to clear the commander-in-chief threshold. One hopes Team Obama is well-prepared for the Musharraf resignation...

Having said that, I think the re-emergence of Russia may actually provide Obama with an opportunity if he knows how to seize it. And it comes, of all places, from Maureen Dowd.

In yesterday's column MoDo wrote:

When I interviewed him at the start of his first presidential run in 1999, [W.] took an obvious shot and told me, “I believe the big issues are going to be China and Russia.”

But after 9/11, he let Cheney, Rummy and the neocons gull him into a destructive obsession with Iraq. While America has been bogged down and bled dry, China and Russia are plumping up. China has bought so much of America that we’d be dead Peking ducks if they pulled their investments out of our market, and Russia has transformed itself from a pauper nation to a land filled with millionaires — all through our addiction to oil.

What was so galling about watching W.’s giddy sightseeing at the Olympics was that it underscored China’s rise as a superpower and, thanks to the administration’s derelict foreign and economic policies, America’s fade-out. It’s as though China has become us and we’ve become Europe. Like Russia, China has also been showing jagged authoritarian ways and ignoring America’s preaching, including W.’s tame criticism as he flew into Beijing to revel in the spectacle of China’s ascension.

Despite his 1999 prediction that Russia and China would be key to security in the world, W. never bothered to study up on them.

Very good points. Obama's strongest response to the Russia situtation may be the same one he's used in other foreign policy contexts: By focusing on Iraq, we took our eyes off the real long-term threats to U.S. security. Global terrorism was one of them. Afghanistan and Pakistan were two others. The rise of Russia still another. Worse, Iraq has deprived us of all sorts of leverage we would have had with Russia. With our troops bogged down, we don't have much of a deterrent capability. (Not that we'd want to threaten force, but you'd like all options on the table so the Russians know there's a practical limit to their actions.) And we now desperately need Russia's help in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, which we might not need as much if we weren't in Iraq and vulenrable to Iranian adventurism there. (Which is to say, Iran has leverage over us thanks to Iraq, which we need the Russians to counterbalance.)   

Better yet, I don't think McCain can even disagree with this analysis, though I'm sure he would. On some level it's basically a neocon critique: By getting bogged down in Iraq, we've fallen behind in a struggle against a great power (Russia) that we foolishly took to be benign amid all the happy talk of the 1990s. 

Update: I slightly tweaked the first graf with a few words about Obama's vacation.

--Noam Scheiber