August 12th, 2008
08:36 PM ET

Gergen: Different paths on Georgia

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/18/art.mccainobama.jpg]
David Gergen
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

I'm unfortunately stuck in an airport tonight and cannot join the discussion about the way the candidates have responded to the recent face-off between Russia and Georgia. Perhaps I can add two cents on the blog.

As a general proposition, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama took different paths that represent two different approaches to foreign policy. Obama was much more the pragmatic, taking a cautious stance at first, calling for negotiations, when the facts were murky and it appeared there was some fault on both sides. As the Russians became more brutal and clearly went over the line, he hardened up, while still emphasizing the ultimate need for negotiations. In all of this, he was acting in concert with the Bush administration as well as NATO allies.

McCain by contrast was much tougher on the Russians right from the get go, siding entirely with the Georgians and their young democracy. He showed that he was experienced on the issue. His approach closely mirrored the hard line approach we often saw during the Bush first term, when neo-cons were often in the saddle.

In terms of immediate U.S. politics, I would imagine that McCain scored slightly better with the public in the early going because he was ahead of the curve in recognizing how brutal the Russians would become. But in his statement of recent hours, asserting that we are all Georgians now, I think he went too far – not many Americans think that we have a formal obligation to the Georgians and they will wince at the idea that under McCain, we might become militarily involved in a place like that.

Overall, my sense is that this raises a fundamental question for American voters: Do they want a president whose first instinct is diplomacy when there is mischief in the world? Or do they want a president who understands the darker side and stands resolutely against it, even when it makes us more belligerent?

Final point: Obama can make an argument now – and I imagine he will – that if President Bush had not been so focused – distracted? – by Iraq, the U.S. might have done a better job in heading off the confrontation up front.

Will welcome the views of everyone. Thanks for reading.

Filed under: Barack Obama • David Gergen • Global 360° • John McCain • Raw Politics
soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Marguerite

    David: I believe that Obama's restraint at the beginning of the conflict showed judgment, not a lack of knowledge. Just because you have a greater knowledge of an area doesn't mean that you have all the facts when two countries start shooting at each other and making allegations that may or may not be true. Once it became clear that Georgia was not entirely innocent in this whole affair, Obama took a harder stance in his words. Making public statements with pre-conceived notions without a firm grasp of the issues and events is bad judgment and poor leadership. I think that Senator McCain is shooting from the hip on this in order to score political points. There is too much at stake for this kind of behavior.

    August 13, 2008 at 10:24 am |
  2. Matthew

    This conflict abiding in Russia is an ethnic conflict. I don't know if it has anything to do with the serbs or some other kind of fanatic group. These people want representation in Russia, but clearly don't want to be in union with this country. Especially, considering Kosovo declaring independence earlier this year. The ride of nationalism is crossing into paths of what will spread into what will and can not be contained unless, they borrow some of the methods used in manipulation from these other autocratic democracies. Where there is immunity from such sanctions as the rule of law.

    August 13, 2008 at 9:48 am |
  3. James Dylan

    Was McCain wrong when he said he saw KGB in the eyes of Putin? A man accused of murdering several journalists critical of his Presidency. Accused of poisoning and murdering political adversaries. Who at the end of his Presidential term instead of stepping down created a new position for himself; Prime Minister of Russia. In effect making the elected President a puppet and their democracy a dictatorship. To me this is not a question of styles but of instincts, judgement and knowledge. One says he needs to talk more while the other says he knows what is going to be said. I will take the man who already knows any day of the week. So yes, McCain was right while Obama lags behind playing catch up. Let me also say Hillary Clinton would also know the manner in which to engage Russia, the tone of the immediate reaction, possibly even better than McCain.
    This was a year tailor made for the democrats but they blew it. They put there money in with a talker who has nothing but a hope to become President. He has used the current political climate to prey on the hearts of Americans while lacking the knowledge of the real world. Obama can be compared to the weakness of Jimmy Carter far to easily. It seems windfall profit taxes and Hamas comes up in conversation about both.
    Commander in Chief is not the only responsibility or our President, but it is the most important.

    August 13, 2008 at 4:09 am |
  4. J.V.hodgson

    Dear David,
    Experience is not always what counts especially historically. The economic and social status of Russia has changed and its political clout and military clout are now enormous.
    The thing I saw clearly was in a confused and unclear situation, these wars always are intially;-
    1) McCain sounds off with more of the same and don't you dare touch my immature democracy.
    2) Obama starts of with moderate political stance and as it becomes clearer he attacks more strongly.
    Thats what I want to see from a President a balanced response based on fact not the republican ideological mindset of Bush previously ,or Mccain now.
    When McCain says he sees the KGB in Putins eyes he is not seeing what he thinks ( the old KGB) he seeing the reflection of a nomenclature which in Putins mind = Keep Governing Badly. then watch the price of Oil and gas go up again.
    Mccains approach is a classic way of perpetuating the war on terror (remember this is a very ethnic, islam and muslim part of the world) and risks a major America (only )confrontation (war ??)with Russia, as there will be no coalition on that .Europe is too dependent on Russia for Oil and gas, so for my money the experience gain goes to Obama as those issues should be discussed and resolved as equals, and based on fact not ideology.

    August 13, 2008 at 2:02 am |
  5. Marlie:

    to Kim in Chicago – The rest of the world has been watching Russia – only Americans haven't been. It is again a very strong world opponent and bears watching. There is so much going on in the world that you're missing because the length of your election and the focus there - for nearly two years. In response to the blog, I'd rather have someone like Obama, who tries diplomacy first. I wonder if Americans have any idea what could happen should McCain become potus. AMERICA, the world is changing. Be part of it. Marlie, Canada PS Gary Chandler, you always write great posts.

    August 13, 2008 at 1:49 am |
  6. Alex

    The Russians made their move simply because they knew the US would not intervene militarily. I don't have anything against diplomacy as the first alternative, but in a game of chess, if your opponent knows what your next move is, they'll eat you alive. Simply the US doesn't possess the respect and power it once enjoyed. With Obama at the helm, be prepared for Russia and others to test our resolve and start their quest for more power and clout throughout the world. While they march and kill innocent people, Obama will be working his channels of diplomcy. Then the world will witness the youngster trying to flex his muscle until he realizes he has none.

    August 13, 2008 at 12:16 am |
  7. Timothy Beauchamp

    Mr. Gergen:

    Your writing, "do we want a President that understands the darker side?" is misleading by inferring McCain somehow understands darker human nature because he mimics the neo-con reaction of shoot first and ask questions later. I would argue Obama understands the darker side by realizing we had better try negotiating first and then toughen our stance. Sure, its a more feel good approach to rattle our sabors, and pretend we had the same leverage we did eight years ago, but that kind of action doesn't occur in a vacuum. Russia isn't blind or stupid, and they know how they measure up to us after the eight long years of Republican Neo-Con mismanagement.

    Its cute to try to tie Obama to Bush by claiming they both reacted the same way. Funny, but the only reaction I saw from Bush, regarding this situation, was slapping volleyball players on the butt at the Olympics. Besides, nothing says I trust Russia than to say you've looked into Putin's soul and saw goodness and mercy there. Remember, Mr. Gergen, Bush and McCain are neo-cons and always will be. No amount of trying to link Obama and Bush together will rehabilitate Bush's image or make Obama look "soft on terrah."

    Most importantly you can't separate Republican and Neo-Con because they truly are the same thing.

    August 12, 2008 at 11:58 pm |
  8. Dick L. in Michigan

    Let's learn to be good Americans before becoming republican, democrat, or Georgian.

    August 12, 2008 at 11:57 pm |
  9. Jack Feely

    Why is John McCain not considering Colin Powell for VP to distance himself from Bush, appeal to a wider range of voters, and bring a distingushed, globally respected American into the equation?

    August 12, 2008 at 11:51 pm |
  10. natia

    I am afraid that you political analysts are too short sighted. I am listening CNN news all day long how you talk about Georgia’s recklessness and premature actions of the president of Georgia. I wonder why none of you refers to Vladimir Putin as reckless, brutal, racist dictator. Actions against Georgia are a racial genocide. I wonder, whether you pretend or you don’t understand what is really going on in that region. Georgia is fighting for its own land. Thousand of Georgians fled south Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1992, after Russian separatist launched Georgian Genocide in those regions. Why don’t you recall the event in that region since 1990? And the world the Ok with the fact that Russia is demanding from president of Georgia to relinquish his power? In 21st century?
    Whether it is you or your president, you represent your country. US made a promise that it would help Georgia to protect its territorial integrity. Georgia stood by US during Afghanistan war, if Georgia’s help was so insignificant, why did you accept it? And right now, USA and NATO cannot offer more than empty words.
    Let’s forget about Georgia’s interest for one minute, how can’t you see the danger of Russia’s power growing to the south? Don’t you think, after taking Georgia, Russia is going to be too close to Afghanistan oil? Don’t you think that Ukraine will be next? Will you close your eyes on that too? What about Kosovo, Poland or any other eastern European Countries. Are you waiting for another Hitler? What makes you think Putin is any different form Hitler? And you say that you don’t have leverage to intervene? You do have a lot of leverage; you are just being politically dull and rusted, perhaps from having the comfortable life too long.
    The only person ( I hope he is being honest) who really showed years of experience in foreigner affairs and how to deal with Russia is Senator McCain, and I think you really need someone like him as a president, considering the growing power of Russia.

    August 12, 2008 at 11:50 pm |
  11. sue

    I respect the fact that Mr. McCain is a military man...Maybe he would be better served in a military position-Head of the Joint chiefs or something...I also think your country would be better served if your first response wasn't always to bring in the tanks.
    All of these super powers around the world have the military power to take each other down. What HAD made America different, was that they were the leaders in super powers that had the wisdom to see the bigger picture of the world. You no longer have a leg to stand on...I believe change would do you well in takiong back your position as leaders.

    August 12, 2008 at 11:28 pm |
  12. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    Russia sits as a very big Sleeper in this world. We rarely hear about them as they have been out of the US mainstream media for quite some time. Out of the media, but not out of touch. Russia is a very big player in the oil business and is mad at the fact there was a new pipeline made that took oil business from the one that went through Russia. The US doesn't want war with Russia for sure. That would be the end for all of us and this we all know. I want a President that understands this is not 1955, but is 2008. Diplomacy first.......war if we actually have to............

    August 12, 2008 at 11:25 pm |
  13. Cathy in Vermont

    Pat (above), I did not feel David Gergen was agreeing with the McCain approach at all. I think he was being neutral, laying it out for us with an interest in hearing our thoughts. My guess would be that David might actually agree with the more pragmatic approach or something that falls in the middle between the two but that is just a guess.

    August 12, 2008 at 11:05 pm |
  14. Oscar

    Does Senator McCain feel that we should go to war with Russia over
    Georgia.Why not ask him?

    August 12, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  15. Cathy in Vermont

    My thinking is that there ought to be some pretty careful consideration before jumping into this situation militarily. Just look at where the Neo-cons have taken us over the past seven years. Agree with Sharon B in Gainsville, diplomacy must be exercised prior to agressive force. Great piece.....looking forward to your return to AC 360 David!

    August 12, 2008 at 10:58 pm |
  16. Pat

    David I am extremely disappointed in you and your comments. I have always considered your assessment of current events as having more weight and accuracy. Your comments above truly surprised me.

    In my layman's opinion, the American experience over the past seven years with the Bush Regime coupled with the knowledge that McCain is the closest America will ever come to another Bush in the White House – I can't for the life of me understand how you could possibly see McCain's approach as the right path in this situation. It is clear to me that McCain/McSame, like Bush, will have America emerged in another war in a matter of weeks if he should, God Help Us, be elected! And another war and another Trillion dollars is NOT what America or the World needs.

    Obama's Pragmatism in my view is a welcomed change and an intelligent approach towards a peaceful solution. We have all seen first hand where off the cuff decision making void of any reasoning,
    or facts and tough lines have led us. The American economy and housing situation are two direct results. For those who need further evidence ask anyone from one corner of the Globe to the other what they think of President Bush. Their answer will undoubtly make Americans decision as to who should be their next President much easier.

    What are you thinking?

    August 12, 2008 at 10:45 pm |
  17. Sharon

    Of course Obama is right. Why are are rushing into another war where angels fear to tread? Look what the two wars(Iraq and Afghanistan) have caused us: economic instability and catastrophic losses of our young men and women lives. DIPLOMACY must be exercised before agressive force is implemented. McCain is acting like a bad dog without teeth.

    August 12, 2008 at 10:20 pm |
  18. Stephen B in Gainesville FL

    What a loaded question. Have you been moonlight writing question for Lou Dobbs?

    August 12, 2008 at 10:14 pm |
  19. Sandra, Ontario

    I find McCain's view of what's happening in Georgia to be self serving. Georgia and S. Osseita signed a peace deal then Georgia attacked them. I think Russia was correct to respond as they did. McCain's chief policy advisor has made $900,000 as an advisor to the Pres. of Georgia & another has signed oil deal(s) with the Gov. of Georgia. BTW, McCain acquired his knowledge of Georgia from Wikkipedia...compare his statements to Wikki history of Georgia.
    I think everyone should with hold judgement until the full story comes out...there's a reason why the Pres. thought he could do it without repercussions ie Israel and US involvement in that country, ie arms deals and military training...it appears someone gave them the green light to attack S Osseita...the who will eventually come to light hopefully.

    August 12, 2008 at 10:14 pm |
  20. jose bird

    I live in Vieques, PR, a location were the USA bombed repeatedly for 62 years....the USa bombed and destriyed Afganistan and Irak with fabricated evidence that proved wrong and is still there....so what is wrong about the Russsians bombing Georgia? other than that is what world bullies do.....vieques, puerto rico

    August 12, 2008 at 10:11 pm |
  21. kim-chicago

    Although I feel like Russia has been making a few chess moves lately while the rest of the world wasn't looking I think this conflict is a little more complicated than just Russian might. John McCain was totally predictable in his response. BRING IT ON RUSSIA!! I'm sorry but this is exactly what this country DOESN'T need!!

    August 12, 2008 at 10:05 pm |
  22. Annie Kate

    I don't think McCain's harder line necessarily means we would end up in another war – McCain recognized from the beginning how Russia could be (remember the takeover of Hungary) and he talked tough politics – often just verbalizing a hard line is all that is needed before your diplomats sit down with each other. JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" quote is on the same order as McCain's Georgian statement – I think both men meant we identified with them in their struggle for freedom – not that we would come help them fight.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 12, 2008 at 10:05 pm |
  23. Jolene

    David: You won't be on tonight's show? Bummer. Always like when you blog so thanks for that.

    Tough question you have posed. As an American voter, I don't like war but diplomacy doesn't always work either. As Ronald Regan always said while dealing with the Russians...."Trust, but verify". To me, that means you can be a diplomat when warranted, but always have a backup plan!

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    August 12, 2008 at 9:53 pm |
  24. Don

    @ cindy you are the most uninformed person I have ever come across.You want another Bush in charge. McCain wants to talk tough because he do not have to fight in a war now.He just want to fight every chance he get . You will just say anything to get your name on a blog. Maybe we should let you go over there and fight. We are not Rome and we can not fight everyone who do not respect our policy. Do you actually know where Georgia is located. It not the georgia here in the states so it not our problem. Idiosyncratic

    August 12, 2008 at 9:52 pm |
  25. Dori in AZ


    Can we have the best of both?

    I'd like an intelligent, competent, and compassionate president whose first instinct is diplomacy, but who also understands the darker side and can respond in kind. Balanced diplomacy and aggression. Someone who won't hurl us into unnecessary, unjust, or avoidable wars, but one who is courageous enough to lead us into battle when that is truly the right thing to do. Someone who can understand the dynamics and the ramifications of the circumstances and options, even while they are in flux.

    With the right combination of seasoned advisers, I think Sen. Obama is capable of being that for us. God, I hope somebody is!

    August 12, 2008 at 9:50 pm |
  26. JImmy in California

    McCain knows the President of Georgia so well. I'm curious as to why he cannot call the man by his name. I think I glad too that he was not in the White House this weekend with his finger on the button. McCain scares me.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:49 pm |
  27. Larry

    Putin, sees no threat from the U.S.A. politically ( obama, bush or McCain) or any other route. What matters most to Putin is the european response. Russia could care less what U.S. politicians have to say.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:40 pm |
  28. Joan Miami, Fl

    Mr. Gergen, You have excellent observations and points. Thanks for blogging even though you are stuck in an airport. I was looking forward to your comments tonight on AC 360. The blog works fine, but will miss your dialogue. Maybe you can be hooked into the show from yor computer with Skype.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:39 pm |
  29. jane h.

    How can you be so obviously pro-Clinton and pro-McCain? Is it because you are so much a part of the status-quo that you fear you will lose out if Obama is elected? I like to hear most of your ideas but not when it comes to your commrnts on the candidates. On this topic you are definitely not objective. I use to count on you. But you are locked into your loyalties created during your years as a presidential advsor in Washinton, D.C. This is my honest opinion.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:35 pm |
  30. Charlie

    For me, when there is mischief in the world, opening remarks should be that of diplomacy. This should be the tact, even though we may be thinking of who may be really at fault. How can open open discussion even begin between two parties or countries, when the blame is being placed on one side out of the get go!

    A president should be weighing all the facts, before declaring himself the judge and jury!

    McCain has already claimed, according to the tabloids, that he thinks that when looking into the eyes of Putin, that he sees the KGB. I am sure that there will be a real openness for Putin to even be open to any of McCains thoughts, if they ever meet face to face. Again, McCain taking the low road with his opinions about some one, or an issue. He continues to use: FIRE – AIM – Ready, tactics.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:21 pm |
  31. Heather,CA,US

    Mr Gergen,

    It's any honor just to be able to leave a comment. I'm a eastern european Jew who loves world history.I think a good president for our country is someone who understands the regional and culteral histories of all the countries.It's important to know the history of the relationships they each have with the other.I was very much impressed with Sen John McCain.He knows the Georgian Pres very well.He also knows the history of Russia and the entire region.Obama,read his speech like he was reading a grocery list.He doesn't seem to have a grasp or knowledge of world history or affairs. They are indeed two different paths.I do also agree Bush sounded the same.I also know that Bush talked to Putin at the Olympica and Putin lied right to his face.I can't imagine any Pres would react to well to be lied to.Once he found out the truth he let Russia have it.I think he did the right thing.Russia didn't seem to care about Lithuania when they shut off fuel to them.Finally,McCain is right you can take Putin out of the KGB but you can't take the KGB out of Putin. It's the truth.

    You know everyone can have any opinion about just about anything.However,we do live in a global communication age where the world is watching. I have always thought it was crucial for anyone wanting to be President to know the history of other countries. I don't think I'm asking for much. That way they don't look stupid or foolish.

    I always look forward to what you have to say.You have been a part of this nations history.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  32. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Mike in NYC August 12th, 2008 9:02 pm ET
    You just made me think of something. Petreus and McCain take 100 years and, pretty soon, Surge II; while the Russians route the aggressors in 5 days! <(Not so good for the arms dealers.)

    August 12, 2008 at 9:17 pm |
  33. Gary Chandler in Canada

    While America could afford to make 'wrong decisions' with Vietnam, Iraq, and others; if you want to take on Russia, you BETTER get it right! And McCain has it WRONG, as usual.
    No matter what lies McCain tells, or facts he overlooks, it won't erase the mistake the Georgian President made, the HUGE mistake, when HE invaded and murdered the people of S Ossetia last Friday, as well as Russian peace keepers.
    American backed Georgia wanted S Ossetia, in the same way China has Tibet, but Russia repelled the Georgian invasion.
    A Canadian reporter who has written a book on the region has information from his sources that the Georgian president is in 'political' trouble with his own people after this calms down, for CAUSING this mess.
    Could somebody in the news report on the 2 referenda the S Ossetians have passed for independence?
    Which Evil Empire will not recognize those peoples' wishes for freedom and independence? (Hint Russia does recognise them.)
    REPORT on those referenda, or is that too democratic sounding!?

    August 12, 2008 at 9:11 pm |
  34. Miriam Wilson

    I find it rediculous that Clinton aids are going around the news circuit claiming Clinton would have won. She had the most name recognition and she did not get those votes. I feel very strongly that if Edwards affair had been discovered earlier in the campaign most of those votes would have gone to Sen. Obama.
    I voted for president Clinton twice but I did not want to see another Clinton or Bush in the Whitehouse. And she ran a terrible campaign. Where were her advicers last year when this story broke in the Enquirer many of us read it. Why didn't she address then with the Edwards campaign?

    August 12, 2008 at 9:07 pm |
  35. Mike in NYC

    "We are all Georgians now." I laughed out loud at that one.

    Gergen uses the word "brutal" twice. Would he apply that to the Georgians' initial assault on South Ossetia? Their approach had an unmistakable "final solution" vibe to it.

    As some have pointed out, this puts to rest the idea that "democracies" don't start wars.

    Regarding the Russian response that many have called grossly disproportionate - bringing overwhelming force to bear is a classic military strategy. It’s how you limit your own casualties and end hostilities sooner. The US has been a frequent practitioner of this approach. It makes sense, when you have overwhelming force at your command.

    “The darker side”? Not exactly what I’d call cogent analysis from Mr. Gergen. Unfortunately, Obama, McCain and all points in between are on the same page when it comes to who’s the bad guy here. No surprise there.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:02 pm |
  36. Kathy, Chicago

    David, I feel your airport pain. I didn't get home until midnight last night. McCain has come off more as a leader. He comes off as strong and ready to go. I think that Obama looks like a cupcake in foreign affairs. He could use Cheney as a running mate(just kidding). Negotiations are an important part of a presidency, but you have to be tough and back up any tough decisions necessary. This may be the first time that VP's have mattered. McCain's problem is his age and Obama is his inexperience. I can't wait to see who they finally pick! Hope your travels are safe.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:00 pm |
  37. Cindy

    McCain's speech definitely showed that he has WAY more knowledge of Georgia and Russia and the whole situation that is happening there. And also what has happened in the past. He also shows that he knows the area very well and realizes the importance of that nation staying a sovereign nation or it will very greatly hurt our oil supply. His speech far out weighed Obama's who just spewed out rhetoric that any person can say who has never been to that area of the world. The fact that Obama has only been over there once really showed.


    August 12, 2008 at 8:56 pm |
  38. Larry

    David, Jon Voight is being blacklisted for being a conservative in a liberal hollywood ala McCarthyism for stating that he does not believe obama has really been vetted. I worry about what our country is turning into.

    August 12, 2008 at 8:52 pm |
  39. AH

    [Quote]“He [Saakahvili] wanted me to say thanks to you, and give you his heartfelt thanks, for the support of the American people for this tiny little democracy far away from the United States of America,”[Endquote]

    Great, I guess all Americans will burst into tears now.
    Funny Mr. Saakahvili, that it was you who had the super idea to march into South Ossetia. Your "tiny little democracy" just walked into the big fishs mouth.

    [Quote]McCain said. “And I told him that I know I speak for every American when I say to him, ‘Today we are all Georgians.’”[Endquote]

    Naiv. Such as we've seen the past 7 years.

    I'm not American, so I can speak for myself:
    I certainly feel with the citizens, that have to suffer under that circumstances of war. But I do not feel with that idiot Mr. Saakahvilli.

    It ain't that easy, Mr. McCain.

    August 12, 2008 at 8:50 pm |
  40. Larry

    David, are you saying that obamarxist will pull out his 20/20 hindsight and say what the POTUS should have done? Of course he is going to bash the president, its what he does.

    August 12, 2008 at 8:46 pm |