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.
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