Palin’s Words, McCain’s (and Obama’s) Policy

A couple thoughts about Gov. Sarah Palin’s remarks about “war with Russia,” as they’re being reported:

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

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

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.

Greg Sargent makes the salient point at the same link as above:

It’s worth keeping in mind that it’s in ABC News’ interests to hype the heck out of the Palin-wants-war-with-Russia angle. And Palin is clearly discussing what would be an obligation under NATO.

That said, Palin makes a few mistakes here, not least of which is the “Perhaps so” flippancy. If there’s one country that knows about the Article 5 obligations of the NATO alliance, it’s Russia. What’s more, as a general rule under diplomatic protocol, the prospect of war is not articulated. That’s why heads of state rely on oblique formulas like “keeping all options on the table” (which is very different than “exercising all options,” a phrase Palin initially used later on in the interview to refer to military strikes on Pakistani territory). For the general public, these are trivial details, but the language of international relations is littered with them. (James Fallows has a good post on this very subject, which he predicted would arise for Palin two weeks ago.)

But the focus on Palin’s choice of words is a distraction from the content of her remarks, which are an endorsement of the Bush adminstration’s policy towards NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a policy which is also embraced by both presidential candidates.

Of course, Gibson’s question puts the cart before the horse. Russia’s strategic calculation regarding a military operation against Georgia would be dramatically altered if Georgia’s military were backed up by NATO’s mutual defense treaty. On the other hand, so too would Georgia’s strategic calculation regarding a military operation in South Ossetia be dramatically altered by NATO membership (as illustrated by the fact that Georgia’s strategic calculation was already dramatically altered by the Bush administration’s expressions of generic support, despite Washington’s strong discouragement of any Georgian military operation).

Both hypothetical cases illustrate why extending NATO membership, along with its Article 5 commitments, to a country with frozen conflicts and UN peacekeeping operations involving a major power on its border is a bad idea. And it’s an even worse idea when the major military power with peacekeeping troops stationed in the disputed territory is violently opposed to it. They also illustrate why advertising internal NATO divisions by floating Georgia’s MAP eligibility at April’s NATO summit in the face of clear signals that it would be shot down was tantamount to giving Russia the green light to act now or forever hold its peace.

Palin stumbled on the proper diplomatic phrasing, which is bad enough. But both McCain and Obama are making the same mistake on the underlying policy.