U.S. Election Symposium: Tbilisi

Editor's note: This essay is part of a symposium on the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The symposium comes with a twist: none of our contributors can vote in the election. As foreign citizens, each brings a less familiar voice to the debate, but, as intellectuals, documentarians, dissidents, and journalists, they bring interesting voices. Raphaël Glucksmann, Jonathan Freedland, Max Rodenbeck, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali offer arguments for and against John McCain and Barack Obama and much else besides.

Were the American elections to be held in Western Europe, Barack Obama would win in a landslide of Saddam Hussein–esque proportions. To judge by the debate—or, more accurately, the complete absence of debate—in the German, Italian, Spanish, and French press, the U.S. presidential election can be reduced to one simple question, put to the American public by humanity itself: are you sufficiently civilized, peaceful, intellectually developed, and politically evolved to elect Barack Obama to the White House?

Notwithstanding the obvious appeal of the Democratic candidate, perhaps the most seductive since John F. Kennedy, Obama’s Republican opponent has been all but forgotten. This oversight has been encouraged by Europe’s most enlightened commentators, but it is fortunately far from universal, contrary to what one hears in Paris or Rome or Brussels.

There are parts of the world that do not ignore or scorn John McCain: I have visited them, questioned their inhabitants, and listened to their opinions. These places are not populated by Christian right fanatics or oil industry lobbyists, and they have something of profound interest to say about the U.S. elections, and about us.

In the middle of August, a war interrupted our Olympic holiday: for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell, Russia invaded a sovereign country, one, moreover, that counts as a faithful Western ally. I traveled to Georgia at the beginning of the crisis. There, I met General Viatcheslav Borissov, the chief of Russia’s occupying forces, who had just halted his advance a few kilometers south of Gori. He was smiling and kept repeating: “We are no longer afraid of anybody. Of nobody, you hear?”

Following a week of beach volleyball in Beijing, President George W. Bush finally addressed the Georgia crisis, and I sought out the general to gauge his reaction. He erupted in laughter: “Americans? We will crush them. We are strong, you are weak. We act, you do not. Here is the lesson of this war.” In the face of this Soviet relic, and his paramilitary bands of Cossacks and Ossetians plundering and burning the surrounding villages, Europe’s post-historical dream seemed utterly vain. Vain and dangerous.

What is the connection between General Borissov, post-modern Europe, and John McCain? Returning from the suburbs of Gori, I used a break before meeting President Mikheil Saakashvili to eat at one of the crowded terrazzos that make Tbilisi, even under siege, seem like the most pleasant of Italian cities. The Georgian diners had their eyes riveted on a television monitor that played a continuous loop of images of McCain. His declaration, “We all are Georgians,” a slogan later mocked by uninspired Democrats (Wasn’t it a more faithful echo of “Ich bin ein Berliner” than Barack Obama’s unending speech at the Brandenburg Gate, where the only threats came from pigeons and a lapse of memory?), buoyed a forsaken people. As did these defiant words he proclaimed on August 11:

For anyone who thought that stark international aggression was a thing of the past, the last week must have come as a startling wake-up call . . . Some Americans may wonder why events in this part of the world are any concern of ours. After all, Georgia is a small, remote and obscure place. But history is often made in remote, obscure places.

Can one imagine the reaction of the inhabitants of Tbilisi, less than 50 kilometers from the advancing columns of Russian tanks, when they learned of McCain’s statement? When I arrived later at the presidential palace in the middle of a dark, anguished night, who had just called Saakashvili for the third time since midnight? The Arizona senator, the man so despised by our great thinkers and hyper-enlightened editorial writers. After a two-hour interview, during which I was privy to an oscillating spirit of resistance and a sense of abandonment by the West, I headed back to my hotel where an adviser to Saakashvili confided: “It’s incredible, one after another, our friends have turned their backs on us—but John McCain has managed almost single-handedly to be the one to boost our morale. It’s as if he has put his presidential campaign on hold to support us. By doing this, he is already influencing the course of events, even before assuming the presidency.” It was therefore not altogether illogical that Kremlin strategists began to spread the rumor that the war was in truth a vast plot orchestrated by Republicans to bolster their candidate: McCain’s firmness had clearly jarred them.

What disturbs some people about this survivor of Vietnam’s prison camps is precisely what appeals to Georgians, Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, Azeris—peoples who know that history has not come to an end and that it continues to be as grim as ever: McCain shares their fear and the certainty of a coming conflagration. “He sees clearly that we have tough enemies, and that one must be firm against them, he has felt in his own flesh the word ‘resistance,’ which is so shocking to your delicate European ears,” the same adviser continued. Barack Obama may certainly be capable of facing down these types of dangers, but Europe’s infatuation with him owes much to the grand and beautiful phrases with which he hails the imminent reconciliation of mankind. And this sort of admiration, properly understood, reveals nothing more exalted than a desire to sleep peacefully.

The problem here is not the Obama candidacy, but the way it has been elevated in Western Europe (and sometimes, truthfully, in the United States). In Obama, we have found a symbol of the transcendence of conflict; a kind of magic key that will open for all, rich and poor, good and bad, oppressors and oppressed, the door to a post-historical Eden. It is as if the magic spell of a shaman, which had as its virtue the ability to erase the multiplicity of things and the division of mankind, could cure the evils of the Earth, persuade the enemies of goodness, and convert fanatics to tolerance. As if George W. Bush’s verbal slip-ups were the origin of bombs and resentment. But I am not at all sure that this mystical reading of international relations would persuade Georgians being hunted as prey by Moscow’s military rabble.

The Borissovs, Putins, Nasrallahs, Mugabes, Ahmadinejads, and Bin Ladens know perfectly well that reality is not simply fashioned and assembled from words. Their hatred of the West cannot be attributed to a flaw of translation or a difference of language; it derives from something deep, autonomous, and essential. In a chaotic and Hobbesian world, we ought not try to reconcile the irreconcilable, but instead take up and confront these immense dangers, which might soon threaten us as concretely as they have the Georgians or the other friends we abandon so quickly. On the frontlines of the globe, where the American election will have its greatest impact, the friends of Europe and the United States tend to trust John McCain. This is no accident.

For Georgians or Chechens, there is no “McSame.” In Vladimir Putin’s eyes, George W. Bush once glimpsed the pure and beautiful heart of a “good guy,” where John McCain has always detected only three letters: KGB. If anything, recent events have confirmed his reading. The outgoing administration has left behind a calamitous image of the United States and transatlantic relations in tatters, but it would be, and is, especially unfair to present McCain merely as a sequel to Bush. First of all, this atypical Republican nominee qualifies as one of the rare American politicians to be genuinely “Eurocentric.” Not since Dwight Eisenhower has a candidate toured Europe so frequently, and McCain’s advanced age is not the only explanation. McCain knows the mysteries of the European Union and NATO by heart, as well as the rivalries and agreements that divide and cement them. Belonging to the old Washington diplomatic school, his historical and philosophical references mirror our own: he naturally evokes Yalta, Munich, Prague, Budapest, and Kiev, the many points of reference in our split destiny. Unlike Bush, McCain did not forge his worldview on September 11, 2001, at approximately 9:00 a.m. and does not, therefore, focus exclusively on terrorism and the pathologies of the Middle East.

Not that McCain failed to take the exact measurement of the tragedy of the attacks on New York and Washington and their implications; he understands that the U.S. has enemies other than Osama bin Laden—enemies who don’t wear turbans—and that menace abroad cannot be equated simply with al-Qaeda. Whether one was for or against the American intervention in Iraq, the adventure proved so difficult and bloody that it monopolized the attention and efforts of Washington, to the exclusion of equally intractable and sundry problems around the globe. While Sadr City and Fallujah consumed America’s resources, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and China moved their pawns elsewhere. They were left alone to do as they wished while America chased demons in the desert.

More than any American politician, John McCain knows the immediate stakes confronting Europe, in particular the vital arc of crisis that extends from the Baltics to Mongolia, passing through the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. What other senator can explain in depth and off the top of his head the terrorist role of Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, in Vladimir Putin’s 1999 seizure of power, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the thorny question of Abkhazian separatism, or the dubious orientation of that vast gas tank otherwise known as Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Kazakhstan? “History is often made in remote, obscure places.”

That remote, unsteady swath of Asia that extends from Iran to China must be secured by Europe. If not, we Europeans face the threat of an anti-Western bloc at our door, authoritarian powers on whom we will be almost wholly dependent for our energy needs. This single aim could have been achieved but was entirely neglected after the fall of the Soviet Union, and still would have been relatively easy to accomplish six or seven years ago had we not concentrated our efforts so exclusively on a restive Middle East. Today, the same task will require a coherent, long-term strategy and an American leadership dedicated to its vital interests. The strategy will have to be implemented jointly by the European Union and the United States. McCain knows this.

In all his declarations, while clearly and candidly acknowledging differences, McCain constantly repeats the point that the U.S. needs to collaborate with the 27 members of the EU. Europe, unable to go it alone, requires an American presence at its core and on its periphery. A full rapprochement must be reached immediately after the election—we don’t have the luxury of even six months to a year.

McCain supported Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but boldly questioned the way in which they were planned and carried out. Although a senator, he played a major role in instigating a total recasting of the strategy in Baghdad. Now that this overhaul has produced real results, why is it so necessary to leave Iraq, and so rapidly? The withdrawal of American troops does nothing to further Europe’s interest: notice how Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, who do not share the ostentatious anti-Americanism of their predecessors, carefully avoid the demand that GIs evacuate Iraq. Western European leaders won’t reconsider the wisdom of the 2003 intervention and they won’t send a single soldier to Iraq, but they have rightly concluded that the war’s not worth losing now. In 2008, any American retreat would signify a victory for the likes of Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and therefore a defeat for Europe.

McCain’s refusal to invoke religious language, use terms like “crusade,” and indulge in other mystical flights favored by Bush will soothe the rational egos of old Europe. It will also mark the end of the gifts, whether Guantanamo or the scandalous legalization of torture, offered up by the outgoing administration to anti-Americans of all political stripes. These failings permitted Europeans to reject even the liberal elements embedded in the interventionist doctrines of the neoconservatives. Doing so will no longer be so simple with an American president who shutters Guantanamo, signs the Kyoto Protocol, prohibits torture, and doesn’t cite Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher.

If I were an American citizen, many aspects of domestic policy might influence my vote, including the right to abortion, social security, the influence of the Christian right, the death penalty, and much more. But as a European spectator, I see how our rejection of McCain functions as a sort of sleeping pill, enabling us to pretend that history remains frozen in amber, stopped forever in 1989.

According to Montesquieu, when you find yourself in a city where all citizens agree, it is either a room where everyone is asleep or a cemetery. It certainly is not a republic. Fortunately, the election will not be decided in European bedrooms, but in the United States, where the debate promises to be a fantastic and enthralling duel.

Raphaël Glucksmann is co-director of the documentary, Tuez-les tous! Rwanda, and co-author of Mai 68 expliqué à Nicolas Sarkozy.

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