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The Georgia Conflict and the Case for Clark

Barack Obama is fortunate that the conflict in South Ossetia has occurred during the Olympics, depriving it of some of it of the coverage that it otherwise might receive. He is also fortunate that Americans don’t have much attention span for foreign affairs outside of matters involving Iraq and Al Qaeda.

That is not to endorse McCain’s more hardline stance toward Russia, the particulars of which this blog has no standing to comment upon. I have no doubt, however, that the lingering memory of the Cold War makes an anti-Russian stance an easier sale from the standpoint of electoral politics.

But the unscripted drama in the Caucasus also serves as a thought experiment of sorts, especially as it regards Barack Obama’s VP selection. Would Obama be better off if he had, say, General Wesley Clark flanking him right now?

I think absolutely so. The reason does not necessarily have to do with Clark’s experience per se. Rather, it is a question of how well positioned Obama is to win arguments about foreign policy on the campaign trail. In this case, it is Obama’s position, rather than McCain’s, that is closest to the consensus of NATO — as well as, ironically, the Bush Administration. But in matters of global affairs that Americans don’t know very much about — and again, pretty much everything but Iraq, Al Qaeda, and perhaps Israel qualifies there — they are more likely to defer to the brand name opinion on foreign policy, which means John McCain’s

In this case in particular, the Obama side has some good arguments to make about Georgia — for instance, that our moral authority to condemn Russia for its actions is undermined by our own invasion of Iraq, and that our tactical position to place our footprint in the Caucasian theater is undermined by the number of troops we have committed to Iraq. But these are big picture, macro-level arguments, and ones that require the right salesperson. Someone like, say, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.

To be clear, while these arguments hold to a certain extent for someone like Joe Biden, they are mainly an argument for Clark in particular. Joe Biden has a lot of credibility on foreign policy, but the aesthetics of what he could do on the stump and in interviews aren’t really a match for those of a bona fide, ex-General. Biden might leave Obama better equipped to defend news cycles in which something like the South Ossetia conflict is the central topic; Clark might actually be able to win them.

UPDATE: Chris Bowers points to some other interesting tea leaves on Clark. And Clark is surging on Intrade right now, essentially turning the Big Four (Bayh, Biden, Sebelius, Kaine) into a Big Five.

UPDATE x2: For the record, if I had to rank Obama’s potential VP choices — culling from the quasi-official short list plus a couple of other names that are trading well on Intrade — my choices would probably look something like this:

1. Clark
2. Schweitzer
3. Sebelius
4. Bayh
5. Clinton
6. Biden
7. Kaine
8. Reed
9. Nunn
10. Hagel
11. Dodd

This is opinion, not analysis.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.