"He also dismissed McCain's comment last October on Russia and the G-8 as "a holdover from an earlier period," adding: "It doesn't reflect where he is right now.""
Matt also noted that McCain didn't just say he wanted to kick Russia out of the G-8 in October; he said it at the end of last March in his last major foreign policy speech. As I have noted earlier, Fareed Zakaria called this "the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years." So: what's the big deal, and why does it matter if no one knows what McCain's position on it is?
The G-8 is a group of major industrialized countries that meets periodically to discuss issues of concern to its members: economics and trade are always on the table, but it has also dealt with terrorism, energy, the problems of developing countries, and other areas of mutual interest. It is quite important. And kicking Russia out would be a very big deal: not just a slap in the face, but a kick in the gut.
I do not mind doing things that other countries don't like, so long as there is a good reason for doing them. But doing things that other countries don't like for no reason is just dumb. You needlessly alienate them, and you make it harder to achieve their cooperation or assistance if you need it. These are real costs, and they should not be incurred gratuitously.
In the case of Russia in particular, there are all sorts of issues on which we might need their cooperation. Securing loose nukes is an obvious one: we have a real interest in keeping Russia's nuclear weapons secure, but this obviously requires Russian cooperation. Dealing with Iran is another: Russia supplies nuclear fuel to Iran, and would have to be on board for any sanctions we might ever feel like imposing. McCain calls for doing all sorts of things in partnership with Russia in his nonproliferation speech, so it's not as though he doesn't care about these issues, or recognize the need to work with Russia to make progress on them. And, of course, there are many more issues where those came from. (Does now strike anyone as a good time to gratuitously alienate a major producer of hydrocarbons?)
That being the case, you'd think that if John McCain were to propose kicking Russia out of the G-8, he'd have a good reason. But you'd be wrong. Here's the relevant passage from his October article (his March speech is similar):
"Today, we see in Russia diminishing political freedoms, a leadership dominated by a clique of former intelligence officers, efforts to bully democratic neighbors, such as Georgia, and attempts to manipulate Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas. We need a new Western approach to this revanchist Russia. We should start by ensuring that the G-8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia. Rather than tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail or cyberattacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom. We must also increase our programs supporting freedom and the rule of law in Russia and emphasize that genuine partnership remains open to Moscow if it desires it but that such a partnership would involve a commitment to being a responsible actor, internationally and domestically."
Did you catch the part in which he explains why kicking Russia out of the G-8 would be a good idea, or why it would be more effective without Russia, or why our "new approach" to Russia should begin by kicking them in the teeth, or what we might hope to gain from doing so? Neither did I. There is no such part. He just drops this suggestion in out of the blue, without explanation.
And that's just nuts. If you were engaged in a negotiation on important issues, would you gratuitously insult the party you were negotiating with? Of course not. It would be stupid. You'd be risking your negotiations, and whatever you hoped to get out of them, for no reason at all. Same principle here.
But wait: it gets worse. We can't kick Russia out of the G-8:
"One major problem: He can't do it because the other G-8 nations won't let him.
But the fact that he's proposing to try, risking a return to Cold War tensions with the world's second-largest nuclear power after 20 years of prickly partnership, raises questions about McCain's judgment. It also underscores that many of his top foreign-policy advisers are of the same neo-conservative school that promoted the war in Iraq, argue for a tougher stance toward Iran and are skeptical of negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear program.
The Group of Eight, or G-8, as it's popularly known, makes decisions by consensus, so no single nation can kick out another. Most experts say the six other countries — Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and Canada — would never agree to toss Russia, given their close economic ties to their neighbor. A senior U.S. official who deals with Russia policy said that even Moscow would have to approve of its own ouster, given how the G-8 works.
"It's not even a theoretical discussion. It's an impossible discussion," said the senior official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "It's just a dumb thing.""
Kicking Russia out would be dumb. Trying to kick Russia out when you can't even make good on your word adds a whole new layer of dumbness. When it would anger someone were you to try to do something, and you can't actually do that thing, then unless you actually want to make them mad, the wisest course is to just shut up about it. If, for instance, you were in the process of negotiating an important deal, then it would be completely stupid to go around threatening to have the other party thrown in jail when you couldn't make good on your threat.
"Whether it was “a holdover from an earlier period” or not is irrelevant — McCain told voters this was a key component of his foreign policy vision. At some point recently, McCain decided he believes the opposite.
For that matter, his carefully-crafted worldview in March “doesn’t reflect where he is right now”? Perhaps the McCain campaign could do us a favor and list the other parts of his foreign policy from March that he no longer accepts in June. (Remember, just yesterday, McCain’s in-house blogger, Michael Goldfarb, admonished Obama for trying to “have it both ways” on issues.)"
"My guess is that the McCain adviser here is mistaken -- he knows this is a bad idea, so he'd like to think that McCain has flip-flopped away from it. But thought McCain has changed positions on a lot of issues over the years, he's been pretty consistent ever since 1999 or so on foreign policy questions -- taking the most hawkish line on every issue, seeking to ratchet-up tensions with every potential rival, etc. But if McCain has changed his mind about this, and I hope he has, he should say so clearly rather than through an anonymous quote."
Which is it? Does McCain still think it would be a good idea to try, unsuccessfully, to kick Russia out of the G-8 for no apparent reason? If so, then his advisors -- the ones his campaign sends out to deal with the press -- need to get with the program. Has he changed his mind? If so, then he should tell us more straightforwardly. Could it be that he hasn't thought about it clearly enough to have a defined view, or to appreciate why it matters? That would explain why his advisors don't seem to know what he thinks: getting a clear grasp of a nonentity is always dodgy.
But one thing cannot be true: that McCain has a clear, well-articulated grasp of this very important point of foreign policy, and an appreciation of what turns on it. His willingness to toss it out without justification, and then to let his advisors retract it in such an offhand way, makes that explanation completely untenable.