National Security Network

What Palin and Obama Don't Say Can Be Just as Dangerous as What They Do Say

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News Congressional Quarterly 16 September 2008

Barack Obama Georiga Ilan Goldenberg john mccain National Security Network NATO russia Sarah Palin Ukraine

The liberal commentariat took Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to task last week for comments she made about bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and potentially risking war with Russia in the process.

The National Security Network, a group of Democratic defense and foreign policy experts, called the comments “reckless.”

When I asked for some further explanation, the group’s policy director, Ilan Goldenberg, said in an e-mail that “any sensible and serious foreign policy expert does not speculate about these hypotheticals, especially when it comes to a nation with a vast nuclear arsenal.”

Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall wrote that Palin’s answer “shows the consequences of taking a freshman governor with no experience in foreign policy and giving her a 10-day crash course with Randy Scheunemann and the rest of John McCain’s neocon brain trust . . .”

And so on.

It’s fair to say that it has not been the custom for candidates — or even elected officials — to be so blunt on matters of war. Often, when they are blunt about peace — think Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon — they have to eat their words.

As Palin’s critics point out, such forthrightness does run the risk of annoying Russia.

It’s also fair to say that Russia, invader of Georgia and stumbling block to tougher sanctions on Iran, doesn’t seem too worried about annoying the United States.

So let’s take a look at exactly what Palin said in her interview with Charles Gibson of ABC News that has gotten her opponents’ knickers in such a twist.

GIBSON: Would you favor putting Georgia and Ukraine in NATO?

PALIN: Ukraine, definitely, yes. Yes, and Georgia.

GIBSON: Because Putin has said he would not tolerate NATO incursion into the Caucasus.

PALIN: Well, you know, the Rose Revolution, the Orange Revolution, those actions have showed us that those democratic nations, I believe, deserve to be in NATO. . . .

GIBSON: And under the NATO treaty, wouldn’t we then have to go to war if Russia went into Georgia?

PALIN: Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help. . . .

GIBSON: And you think it would be worth it to the United States, Georgia is worth it to the United States to go to war if Russia were to invade.

PALIN: What I think is that smaller democratic countries that are invaded by a larger power is something for us to be vigilant against. We have got to be cognizant of what the consequences are if a larger power is able to take over smaller democratic countries. . . . It doesn’t have to lead to war and it doesn’t have to lead, as I said, to a Cold War, but economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, again, counting on our allies to help us do that in this mission of keeping our eye on Russia and Putin and some of his desire to control and to control much more than smaller democratic countries.

Strategic Ambiguity

So, the “reckless” threat included several qualifiers. And, of course, the part about the NATO obligation is absolutely correct, as even her critics acknowledge.

So, is the implication of the criticism that, if at some future date Georgia and Ukraine were to join NATO, the United States might not come to their aid? If Palin’s “war” talk can be seen as dangerous, what kind of message does that send?

There is some validity to the argument that high officials should keep their cards close to their vests, not give anything away, not let the enemy in on the options.

Strategic ambiguity has served the United States well on many occasions.

But it has also ill-served the United States.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s declaration that Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter likely encouraged Kim Il-Sung to invade South Korea.

More recently, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie telling Saddam Hussein in the summer of 1990 that the United States had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” was viewed as a green light for Saddam’s invasion of his neighbor.

And sometimes directness works pretty well.

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” President John F. Kennedy said Oct. 22, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A message delivered without ambiguity, which the Russians took seriously.

There is a more recent example of a candidate making a direct, hypothetical threat.

“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said last year.

Obviously, the coordinated and vociferous criticism of Palin on this issue is designed to call into question her foreign policy bona fides. That’s what campaigns do — they try to make voters uneasy about the other guy.

That’s fair enough.

But as a matter of policy, there are serious questions to be raised about these particular criticisms.

For starters, Obama supports moving Georgia and Ukraine toward NATO membership.

“Ukraine and Georgia have also been developing their ties with NATO. . . . I welcome the desire and actions of these countries to seek closer ties with NATO and hope that NATO responds favorably to their request, consistent with its criteria for membership,” says this campaign Web site.

Again, if Georgia and Ukraine become NATO members, the United States would be obligated to defend them. You can argue that this makes them a bad risk for membership. That’s a valid policy position to take.

But you can’t argue that you’re in favor of letting them in, then criticize others who say if they’re in then “perhaps” it would mean war if they were invaded.

Because it certainly would “perhaps” mean war.

Palin’s critics say it is wrong for her to say so, even though it’s true.

“While a factually correct observation, candidates for the presidency and vice presidency stay away from making these types of reckless observations and instead decline to answer such hypotheticals,” says the National Security Network. “And for those who would like Georgia to eventually be a member of NATO, these types of statements are almost certainly going to push Europeans further away from consideration of that step.”

Putting aside for the moment the possibility that bringing these nations under the NATO umbrella might itself give the Russians pause, that assessment of Europe is probably true. Which tells us quite a bit about the Europeans, but not much about Palin.

We know the Europeans want Obama to become president.

So do tens of millions of Americans. And he might become president.

It’s true that what Palin said holds the potential for danger.

As a candidate, Obama and his allies have every right to point that out.

But because the candidate might become president, Obama should remember that it’s just as true that what he and his surrogates don’t say could be just as dangerous.