The Obama love fest

ETH Zurich
November 4, 2008

Senator Barack Obama in Billings, Montana watches Senator Hillary Clinton deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. August 2008

Obama would sweep an election in Europe, but there are exceptions to the seemingly global Obama love fest, Jeremy Druker writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Jeremy Druker in Prague for ISN Security Watch

As election day approached, leaders and analysts throughout Central and Eastern Europe have scoured quotes from the candidates, trying to decipher whether one or the other would be better for their countries.

Would, for example, an Obama presidency lead to a rollback of plans to place parts of a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland? Would John McCain push harder than his Democratic counterpart for inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO? Would Barack Obama backtrack on independence for Kosovo or retreat from talking tough to Russia?

Overall, the post-communist region has emphatically backed Obama over McCain, similar to virtually everywhere else in the world (a BBC poll of 22 countries worldwide, for example, found the populations of every single country, including Poland and Russia, pulling for an Obama victory).

But there have been exceptions to the love fest. The most prominent one has been Georgia, which topped the list of pro-McCain countries around the world in a Gallup/Foreign Policy poll. Around 23 percent of Georgians preferred McCain to Obama, who received 15 percent of the poll (57 percent said they didn’t know).

Gallup conducted the poll before the August hostilities with Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia, and thus before both candidates took turns during the first president debate arguing about whose response to Russian aggression had been stronger.

(Among other things McCain said, “Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government,” and quipped, “I looked into Mr Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a “K,” a “G,” and a “B.”).

However, the Gallup researchers surmised that McCain benefited with his association with the Bush administration – something, which at least in this part of the world – still carries weight. Washington has steadfastly supported Georgia through thick and thin, ignoring, some would say, backsliding in key areas of democratic development. In 2005, Bush visited Tbilisi, calling the country a “beacon of liberty,” and has pushed for NATO to accept Georgia as soon as possible, despite opposition among key allies, such as Germany and France.

Reflecting that support, another Gallup survey once found 41 percent of Georgia approving of US leadership with only 23 percent disapproving, contrasting dramatically with Gallup figures elsewhere (such as Western Europe).

McCain’s own visits to Georgia, including to South Ossetia, and his apparent friendship with Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili (he referred to him as “Misha” in the debate, “a great young president”) also explain the popularity of the Arizona senator.

More surprising in the Foreign Policy top 10 pro-McCain countries were the three Baltic countries, though “pro-McCain” is actually a misnomer. The Balts were either neutral (Lithuania), or slightly for Obama (Estonia and Latvia) – probably representing a belief that McCain wouldn’t mince words with the Kremlin.

“McCain has been here to Latvia a number of times, knows the region, and is properly skeptical of the Russians,” Pauls Raudseps, editorial page editor of Diena, Latvia’s leading daily newspaper, told me. “But Obama mentioned Latvia twice in the debates, and his foreign policy team includes a number of people who expanded NATO.

“There are potential problems,” Raudseps continued. “McCain would turn off a lot of Western Europeans, which could present problems in rebuilding the trans-Atlantic relationship, but Obama would almost certainly be tested by the Russians either through flattery or an escalation of tensions.

“From a Latvian point of view, either one is fine, we don’t see any major changes in US policy toward the Baltics, regardless of who is elected.”

Other places where McCain had some support in polls can best be explained by the Balkan penchant for conspiracy theories or, more kindly put, wishful thinking.

In another “world poll” – this one reader-driven on – found Macedonians voting early on for McCain. The site’s analysis section concluded: “Macedonia perhaps backed Mr McCain in reaction to the hearty enthusiasm for Mr Obama in neighboring Greece.”

Apparently, the notion has spread among nationalist websites and blogs that Obama would be more likely to favor Athens in the long-running debate with Macedonia over its constitutional name (Obama once signed a non-binding Senate resolution seen by Macedonians as heavily pro-Greek). In contrast, McCain supposedly stands by Skopje as a loyal friend. In the end, Obama still won in the Economist poll.

One place Obama didn’t do himself any favors in recent months was Serbia. Over the past months, a variety of statements supporting Kosovo’s independence have assuaged Kosovo Albanians and their brethren abroad that Obama is just as much a friend to Kosovo as is McCain.

The online publication New Kosova Report spoke about Obama’s recent attempt “to clarify some of the ambiguous and misleading statements made earlier to the Serb media and organizations, and court instead the Albanian-American communities who reside in the most contested states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, states that have determined the winner in the past two elections, and others such as New York, New Jersey, Texas, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

“Many Albanian-American Democratic voters were ambivalent about Barack Obama due to his absence from national American politics during the Balkan conflicts in the 90s and dubious statements by various pro-Serbian media and think tanks that Obama could shift the American policy in the Balkans.”

According to one source in Belgrade that didn’t wish to be named, Serbian officials had been hoping that an Obama victory might miraculously open a way to keep Kosovo’s independence on the table. One theory held that Obama would cater to the large Serbian-American community in his home state of Illinois, including the state’s governor, Rod R Blagojevich.
But the choice of Joe Biden as the Democratic vice presidential candidate ended much of that speculation.

“Obama pictures in the offices of some Serb officials quickly came down after the choice of Biden as his VP,” said the source.

In 1999, Biden had namely co-sponsored a resolution – later defeated – that would have authorized President Bill Clinton to use “all necessary force” to end the war in Kosovo, even ground troops.

Biden’s co-sponsor of the resolution? John McCain.