(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/03/Picture-20.gif)President Barack Obama’s open mic comments to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, asking for “space” on missile defense until after the US presidential elections in November when he believes he will have more “flexibility” to negotiate have the White House in full damage control mode. Obama’s request that the Russians hang tight until after the election is not in itself all that surprising. This is an election year and something as vital to US security as missile defense should not be negotiated in a partisan atmosphere. But the key word in the president’s comments is “flexibility.” And the key question is: how much more “flexible” can the president possibly get and not give away the store on missile defense?
The president made his unguarded remarks in Seoul, South Korea where he is attending a summit meeting on nuclear security. Republicans immediately jumped on the president’s comments to Medvedev, with GOP presidential candidates criticizing Obama’s desire to wait until after the election as a sign that he may be willing to offer larger concessions to the Russians than would be safe for US national security. This is not an unreasonable fear given the president’s past unilateral actions to address Russian concerns about the missile shield. And given the president’s eagerness to negotiate another START treaty, there is a danger that Obama will sell out on missile defense in order to get the Russians to sign an arms limitation pact.
The White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes sought to play down the president’s gaffe by passing it off as nothing extraordinary:
Since 2012 is an election year in both countries, with an election and leadership transition in Russia and an election in the United States, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough. Therefore, President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile-defense cooperation going forward.
This isn’t the first time Obama has been caught by a “hot mic” saying something revealing. During a meeting with French President Nicholas Sarkozy last November, there was this exchange about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu between the two leaders that was heard by the assembled press: “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” Sarkozy said. Obama replied, “You’re tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day.”
This time, rather than an arrogant dismissal of an ally, the president’s comments are far more revealing of what he plans for a second term if he is re-elected. The entire exchange was short, but significant:
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
GOP presidential candidates immediately tried to make political hay out of Obama’s remarks. Mitt Romney referred to them as “an alarming and troubling development.” Newt Gingrich went even further, hinting that the comments were indicative of how far left an Obama second term would be, adding that this was an “extraordinary moment caught on tape where the president basically said to a Russian leader, ‘Please wait until after the election so I can sell out.’” And the Republican National Committee rushed out a video of the president’s comments, asking, “What else is on Obama’s agenda after the election that he isn’t telling you?”
The remarks to Medvedev were meant to be passed on to newly elected President Vladimir Putin, who has been adamant in his position that the missile defense shield the US wants to put in Europe is aimed at Russia. “No one has explained to me why we should believe that the new missile defense system in Europe isn’t directed against us,” Medvedev said at the conference.
The Russians’ worries in this regard would seem to be misplace, given the great concessions President Obama has already made. He has already unilaterally cancelled deployment of a missile shield for Poland and the Czech Republic. The agreement to deploy the system had been reached by President Bush and both countries had based their future defense posture on possessing the missile shield. “This is catastrophic for Poland,” said one Polish defense official. The fact that Obama got absolutely nothing in return from Russia for this gesture was extremely troubling to many American officials. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the minority whip, brought up the cancelled missile shield deployment as evidence that we simply don’t know what Obama’s plans are for a second term when it comes to missile defense.
“But what we don’t know,” Kyl said, “is what President Obama has in mind for after the election, when he would gain some ‘flexibility’ in negotiating with the Russians. Perhaps the Russians, in whom President Obama recently confided, could shed some light on his missile defense plans for the American people who otherwise have been left in the dark by this president.”
In addition to the concession to Russia on the Polish and Czech missile shield, the president also is seriously considering the option of giving classified information to the Russians, including the vital “velocity at burnout” data that would basically help the Russians to defeat the system. It should be noted that giving classified data during arms control negotiations is not unheard of. But the process usually involves an exchange of data between the two sides.
In return for giving the Russians this vital data, they apparently would deign to consider signing an agreement. This doesn’t sit well with Republicans in Congress, especially Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces who released a statement to Reuters saying, “[I]t is important Congress insist on protecting our classified missile defense information, and our right to deploy missile defenses without concern for Russia’s posturing.”
Indeed, Russian “posturing” over the issue of a missile shield for Europe is little more than Putin throwing his weight around. A few anti-missile sites are not going to stop a Russian barrage aimed at any country in Europe, as Putin well knows. The shield is designed to intercept a missile fired from Iran or North Korea and poses no threat to Moscow with regard to its nuclear deterrent.
Putin has suggested that the missile shield be run jointly by both the US and Russia. He has also said that Russia should have veto power over any use of the missile defense system. Obama has resisted this pressure so far, but what happens when he has more “flexibility” in a second term? The president has weakened our negotiating position with his unilateral concessions already. And since he really doesn’t believe in missile defense, is it really unreasonable to believe that he might give in to Russian demands that would neuter the shield just to sign an agreement?
President Medvedev was clear in his demand that US assurances on the missile shield be put in writing. “The main thing is that we must hear one simple thing, hear it and receive confirmation: ‘Respected friends from Russia, our missile defense is not aimed against Russian nuclear forces.’ This must be affirmed not in a friendly chat over a cup of tea or a glass of wine but in a document.”
On a parallel track, another reason that the president’s “flexibility” comment is so disconcerting is Obama’s enthusiasm to sign another strategic arms reduction pact with Russia. Moscow may very well seek linkage between the two, and actually tried to hamstring the US in developing a missile defense program in the first “New START” treaty in 2010 as certain ambiguous language in the pact might have choked off research and development if the Russians chose to interpret the treaty in that way. Republican senators forced Obama to append a statement to the treaty, saying “[I]t is the policy of the United States to continue development and deployment of United States missile defense systems to defend against missile threats from nations such as North Korea and Iran, including qualitative and quantitative improvements to such systems.”
Now, a president who has set as a goal a “world free of nuclear weapons” wishes to once again cut our nuclear deterrent. “We can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need,” he told a group of college students. That is an assumption that is certainly open for debate. And this time, for Obama, there will be no half measures: “Going forward, we’ll continue to seek discussions with Russia on a step we have never taken before – reducing not only our strategic nuclear warheads, but also tactical weapons and warheads in reserve.” Once again, the president’s “flexibility” comment raises the question of just what he is willing to trade – or give away – in order to achieve another START treaty.
The furor over the president’s comments will eventually die down. But as a candidate for president, and as our nation’s commander in chief, he owes the American people an explanation and a preview of what he plans to do in these two vital areas in a potential second term.
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