Oxford, Miss: US Republican presidential candidate John McCain denounced Russia as a KGB-run state and chided Barack Obama as naive while his Democratic rival took the harder line on Pakistan in their first debate on Friday, 26 September.
McCain said Obama had misunderstood Russia’s intentions by calling for restraint on both sides when fighting erupted between Russia and Georgia in August over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.
“A little bit of naivete there,” said McCain, a 72-year-old Arizona senator whose campaign for the presidency has sought to centre on his long foreign policy experience compared with that of Obama, an Illinois senator 25 years his junior.
“Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that has basically become a KGB apparatchik-run government. I looked in Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters—a K, a G and B,” McCain said,
His comment about looking into the eyes of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who once worked for the Russian spy agency, was an ironic reference to President George W. Bush’s statement in 2001 that he got a sense of Putin’s soul by looking into the eyes of the then Russian president.
Obama called Russia’s incursion into South Ossetia “illegal and objectionable.”
The candidates agreed that Georgia and Ukraine should be allowed to join the NATO alliance—which Russia has fiercely opposed—and Obama said they should be given an immediate plan for membership.
In a debate at the University of Mississippi focused on foreign policy, the two differed on Pakistan, where the US has stepped up attacks aimed at militant hideouts across the border from Afghanistan. Pakistan has sharply protested against the attacks.
Obama said $10 billion in aid to the Pakistan government over the last seven years had failed to rid the border region of al Qaeda and Taliban militants, which he said was key to success in Afghanistan, and Washington might need to act alone.
“If the United States has al Qaeda, (Osama) bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out,” he said.
McCain called for a quiet policy.
“You don’t say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government,” he said.
He said support from the Pakistani people was necessary. He cautioned that newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari has his “hands full” and said “this area on the border has not been governed since the days of Alexander the Great.”
“I’m not prepared at this time to cut off aid to Pakistan,” he said.
McCain and Obama clashed over whether the next US president should be willing to hold direct talks with Iran’s leaders as a way to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
McCain said that Obama would give “credence in the world arena” if he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has outraged the United States by saying Israel should be wiped off the map.
“We’re going to sit down, without precondition, across the table, to legitimize and give a propaganda platform to a person that is espousing the extermination of the state of Israel,” McCain said.
Obama said he would not necessarily promise to meet Ahmadinejad, because he is not Iran’s top leader.
“But I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe,” Obama said.