Russian observers frequently complain that the American presidential candidates never mention Russia in their public discourses. Now, these unhappy folks must feel better: during the GOP debates in the Reagan Library on January 30, a "Russian" question popped up.
"President Bush once said he looked into the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and found him to be, "very straightforward and trustworthy", and that he "got a sense of his soul." Senator McCain says he looks into Putin’s eyes and he sees three letters — KGB.
When you look at President Putin, what do you see?"
Gov. Huckabee didn’t take the bait:
"Well, I don’t know that I can read people’s souls that well, and I’ve spent a lot of my life looking at people and talking to them. But I look at people’s actions, because you can look into their eyes and their eyes can lie, but their actions don’t."
He then proceeded with the calls to strengthening the American military and the National Guard.
(Gov. Huckabee isn’t known for his experience in global politics, to say the very least. In one of the prior presidential debates, he advocated the sealing of the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent terrorists from Pakistan from entering the country — raising a troubling possibility that he believed that Pakistan and Mexico shared the same border with the United States.
In his recent piece for the Foreign Affairs magazine, Gov. Huckabee used tough words for both Putin ("…a staunch nationalist in a country that has no democratic tradition") and Russia ("…has always had both imperialist ambitions and an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West"). He questioned Russia’s usefulness in the attempts by the United States to contain Iran ("…Putin has more incentives to keep energy markets jittery than to resolve the crisis with Iran"). He, however, expressed a bit of optimism by saying that "…overall, things [between Russian and the U.S.] will be better than during the Cold War.")
If Ms. Hook felt dissatisfied with Gov. Huckabee’s response, she didn’t show that and without asking any follow-up questions turned then to Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts:
"Governor Romney, your thoughts on Vladimir Putin?"
She was richly rewarded as Gov. Romney took the question heads-on:
" Well, Putin is heading down the same road that we’ve seen authoritarian leaders in Russia and the former Soviet Union head down before, and it’s very troubling. You see a leader who wants to reestablish Russia as one of the great powers of the world, potentially a superpower, potentially the superpower."
Apparently, feeling excited by the presence — immediately to his right — of Sen. McCain, the author of the famous KGB quote, Gov. Romney didn’t let Putin get off the hook lightly:
"And he has — the evidence of that, of course, is his elimination of the free press, his terrorizing and imprisoning political prisoners, and unexplained murders that are occurring. It’s a — it’s another repressive regime, which he is overseeing. And the question is what do you [do] in a circumstance like that and what it portends for the future of the world."
Having said that, Gov. Romney then strayed of the course to touch upon China and al-Qaeda and then ended up with calls to strengthen the American military.
(In his respective Foreign Affairs article, Gov. Romney praised the Cold War era’s American economy for "…outcompeting the Soviets and driving them to an economic bankruptcy that matched their moral bankruptcy." He mentioned Russia only once — in the context of energy independence — bundling Russia with Iran and Venezuela and calling them "oil-producing nations, some of which use the money [from oil sales] against us." )
It’s completely unrealistic to expect the candidates to have a well-defined position on Russia at this point of the campaign, although it would be helpful for them to know that by the time any of them is in the White House, Putin will have been out of the Kremlin for full 9 months.
The real problem is that the contenders seem to be unable to articulate a coherent position on virtually any aspect of the foreign relations. Thus, a real discussion on the future of Iraq was replaced — during the debates in the Reagan library — with a childish quarrel between McCain and Romney on whether or not the latter had supported a timetable for a phased troop withdrawal.
If the two leading GOP candidates cannot formulate their positions on the issue number one, why would one expect them giving an intelligent or even an intelligible opinion on Russia?
American presidential candidates don’t speak about Russia? Good for them!