The first major U.S. foreign policy crisis of the presidential campaign saw Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama join in condemnation of Russian attacks on neighboring Georgia, with McCain warning the Kremlin of long-term consequences and Obama calling for immediate mediation.
Russia, nevertheless, expanded its bombing blitz Sunday against U.S.-allied Georgia, targeting the country's capital for the first time even though Georgia said it had pulled out of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, as Moscow has demanded.
Georgia has been riven by strife brought on by the breakaway sentiments of two regions inside it's borders — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — since the former Soviet republic gained independence from Moscow in the early 1990s.
Both regions have found backing from the Russians, who have sent troops to the region to act as peacekeepers.
While the stumbling American economy is the prime issue in the 2008 campaign, McCain has routinely sought to play on his long association with international and security affairs against Obama's short record on the national stage.
Pair most at odds over Iraq
The two are most at odds over Iraq, where Obama opposed the war before it began and now wants to withdraw American forces within 16 months of taking office, should he win. McCain supported the war and the so-called surge that has been credited with bringing down violence. McCain says U.S. troops should remain in Iraq until "conditions on the country" allow a withdrawal.
McCain said he had spoken with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili late Saturday and called Russia's military actions in the conflict "totally, absolutely unacceptable."
"I would be very direct with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin that these actions will have consequences long term, in terms of our relationship with Russia, and it is in violation of the norms of international conduct," he said in an interview with The Associated Press in Las Vegas, incorrectly calling Putin the Russian president. He has taken on the position of prime minister after the election of his personally chosen successor in the presidency, Dmitry Medvedev.
McCain has taken a consistently tough line against Moscow throughout the campaign, saying he would seek to expel the Kremlin from membership in the G-8, the bloc of economically powerful world nations to which Russia only gained membership in 1997.
McCain has said Russia's reversion to autocratic rule during Putin's presidency make it unfit for membership in an organization where all others are democracies.
Top diplomats should mediate
Obama said he had talked with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Saakashvili to condemn Russia's recent actions. He said top diplomats from the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations should become directly involved in mediating the military conflict.
"A genuinely neutral mediator — not the Russian government — must begin a process of negotiations immediately," Obama said in a statement.
On the running dispute between McCain and Obama on the other key foreign affairs issue facing voters this year, McCain portrayed Obama as focused more on his own ambition than military success in Iraq. Obama argued that McCain favors extending a war that is hurting Americans at home.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Sunday Iraqi negotiators were "on the brink" of reaching a long-term security pact with the United States that will decide the fate of American troops in Iraq.
Zebari said the Iraqis are insisting on the inclusion of a "clear timeline" for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces. But he has refused to give any dates.
Zebari told journalists that the main sticking points have been over the authorization of military operations and sovereignty issues. But he's optimistic that both sides "are compromising on all these issues."
U.S. acceptance — even tentatively — of a specific timeline would represent a dramatic reversal of American policy in place since the war began in March 2003.
Disagreement over troop withdrawal in Iraq
McCain has vowed to keep U.S. forces in Iraq as long as "conditions on the ground" require their presence. Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki say American troops should be out of the country in 2010.
On Saturday, McCain mocked what he called Obama's varying positions on the so-called "surge" that sent an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq last year but that was unpopular with the American public.
McCain has increasingly tried to portray the Illinois senator as an ambitious but empty celebrity, a man with a way with words but not the expertise or experience to back his rhetoric. The 71-year-old military veteran's Saturday comments echoed an earlier statement that raised eyebrows when he appeared to question Obama's patriotism, charging that he "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."
In his speech to the Disabled American Veterans convention Saturday, McCain said Obama had not only predicted the troop increase would not succeed but had taken steps to ensure its failure, saying Obama had tried to prevent needed funding for it.
"Not content to merely predict failure in Iraq, my opponent tried to legislate failure," McCain said.
Obama voted against one major military appropriations bill in May 2007, but otherwise has voted consistently for funding to support the war, even though he opposed the initial invasion.
The surge has been credited with helping stabilize Iraq and reduce violence there. Obama has argued that it has not brought about the political reconciliation between rival Sunni and Shia factions needed to create lasting peace in the country.
Obama has consistently criticized McCain for supporting the original Iraq invasion, which polls show many voters now consider a mistake. Obama, who has made Afghanistan a centerpiece of his anti-terrorism strategy, has said the protracted Iraq conflict has drawn needed resources away from Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and Taliban forces have shown a resurgence.