Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama both scolded the Kremlin for invading neighboring Georgia, a close American ally, but their words and tone offered a window into the significant differences in how the presidential candidates would conduct future U.S.-Russian relations.
While both men condemned the Russian military incursion, which Moscow said on Tuesday had been halted, only Obama saw room to criticize both sides in the first serious foreign policy crisis to flare since they began their one-on-one battle for the White House.
Obama said, "There is no possible justification for these attacks," while noting that "Georgia should refrain from using force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and a political settlement must be reached that addresses the status of these disputed regions." That was a clear acknowledgment that Georgia, too, needed to change course.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia are regions in northern Georgia that have broken away under Russian protection. Both have operated on a virtually autonomous basis since shortly after Georgia achieved independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia has what it calls "peacekeeping" forces in both regions.
The current crisis flared late last week when Georgian forces apparently sought to reassert control in South Ossetia. Russia responded with overwhelming force, sending in troops, armor and attack aircraft. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili immediately sought a cease-fire but was shunned by the Russians, who said he should step down.
(See video at left for Steve Liesman's explainer on why Georgia matters for investors.)
On Tuesday, after expressions of outrage in Washington and European capitals, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a halt to military action and said on national television that his military had inflicted sufficient punishment on Georgia.
"The security of our peacekeepers and civilians has been restored," Medvedev said. "The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized."
Medvedev, however, said he ordered the military to defend itself and quell any signs of Georgian resistance.
McCain, who has called for Russian to be expelled from the Group of Eight, the world's most powerful industrialized countries known as the G-8, gave no ground in his criticism of the Kremlin leadership and what he views as it's increasingly autocratic rule.
"Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin must understand the severe, long-term negative consequences that their government's actions will have for Russia's relationship with the U.S. and Europe," said McCain, who loses no opportunity to contrast his background — that includes 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and more than 20 years in the Senate — to that of Obama, a first-term senator.
McCain has been highly critical of Obama's stated willingness to negotiate with world leader's whose policies are seen as threatening to U.S. interests and security.
Perhaps the most controversial of proposals by both McCain and Obama were calls for NATO to consider putting Georgia on a faster track for alliance membership, which gives any signatory the promise of protection by all NATO nations in case of attack. Such a move in the case of Georgia would, in theory, have meant NATO military action against Russia.
"NATO's decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision," McCain said.
Obama appeared to agree, saying, "I have consistently called for deepening relations between Georgia and trans-Atlantic institutions, including a Membership Action Plan for NATO, and we must continue to press for that deeper relationship."
While the crisis in the Caucasus played out, light was shined on the dark underside of American politics.
The September issue of The Atlantic magazine reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton's top campaign strategist had advised her to cast Obama during their battle for the nomination as having questionable "roots to basic American values and culture" and use the theme to counter the image that his background is diverse and multicultural.
Obama is the son of a black man from Kenya and white woman from Kansas. He was born in Hawaii, the 50th U.S. state of Pacific Ocean islands that has a diverse culture, and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.
"I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values," top adviser Mark Penn wrote in a March 2007 memo to Clinton, who did not act on the advice.
The article says Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination went from front-runner status to failure for a number of reasons, from badly managed money to blistering warfare between advisers. Clinton did little to quell the infighting.
Mostly, the disputes were over whether to go open a negative campaign against Obama, a half-black, Harvard-trained lawyer with a gift for soaring rhetoric and big themes.
Penn advised taking the negative approach.
Obama's background was a "lack of American roots," Penn wrote.
His memos also contained prescient advice. The March 2007 document talked about the importance of a key voting bloc he called "the invisible Americans" — women and lower- and middle-class voters.
Those groups helped Clinton beat Obama in key states before she quit the race in June.
Obama on Tuesday continued his vacation in Hawaii. McCain planned a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, before attending a fundraising event in neighboring New Jersey.