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Obama's Mic Gaffe: Too Much Frankness Between Former Foes?

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The day's drama, which will be replayed on 24-hour news channels for the next 24 hours, involves President Obama's slip-up yesterday at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. The summit is the second iteration of a conference held in Washington in 2010, and it was reported that 80% of the commitments agreed to by the 47 countries at the first summit had been reached. Although that's a surprisingly high success rate for an international initiative with no coercive levers or material incentives, that certainly wasn't the story. Rather, Obama leaning in to President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and saying with remarkable candor that his hands were tied on missile defense this year because of national politics is, apparently, the real story. In case it wasn't clear, he was unaware that the microphones could pick up what was meant to be an off-the-record statement. Here's the video:

Naturally, Republicans pounced on the issue. Hey, if Newt Gingrich was willing to call the president's brief remarks on the Trayvon Martin case "disgraceful," what would make one think they'd bite their tongues here? Mitt Romney gave the following response on CNN's Wolf Blitzer. At 0:39, he calls Russia, "without question, our number one geopolitical foe."

Romney also mentions that he disagrees with the "New START" nuclear arms reduction agreement between the US and Russia signed by Obama. The agreement, if anything, does not go anywhere near far enough in reducing armaments, largely a reflection of increasingly partisan politics following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Romney then backtracks some when Blitzer presses him on the point, asking him where North Korea and Iran fall on that list if Russia is number one. However, he reiterates the basic point, that Russia is still in our crosshairs, and if he were president he would act with that in mind, rather than making chummy small talk and offering explanations to the Russian leadership.

First, what is this missile shield that's suddenly back in the news? A quick recap from Bloomberg News:

"Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. withdrew in 2002 from the Cold War Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that had restricted U.S. and Soviet missile defense programs for 30 years. In 2007, the U.S. started preparations for a missile defense system -- ostensibly against an Iranian attack -- with its front legs in Europe. The forward radar for the system was to be in the Czech Republic, and Poland would host the missiles that would shoot down any long-range ballistic missiles Iran might let fly. Russia, however, saw the shield as a naked Cold War power play by the U.S. and was mad as hell ... The early stages of the new plan don't include Poland or the Czech Republic. The forward radar is now located instead in eastern Turkey, and the initial anti-missile batteries would be put on ships and in Romania. But by the fourth and final phase, Poland would be back in the picture."

The idea is that this new system will be cheaper to set up, expandable depending on the extent of the threat from the Middle East (which is currently around zero), and avoids putting equipment on Russia's border for now. Russia still wants an effective veto over its use, demanding a legal treaty promising that the system will never be used against it. Given that treaties won't have much sway if the countries do go to war, that does not seem an absurd prospect. But of course the U.S. loathes the prospect of any international or foreign actor telling it what to do, even on paper. Look at its refusal to join the International Criminal Court if you need an example.

President Obama is absolutely correct in that legislative agreement on missile defense is not something that could get through Congress this year. It couldn't even get through Congress in a non-election year in the midst of the debt ceiling debate. As the parties draw ever deeper trenches between their positions for the 2012 campaign, there is no way Republicans would hand Obama such a major policy victory.

In all fairness, this is not due strictly to political calculations. As much as Republicans would love to make the White House look like they're fumbling our national security, there are also real differences in how Republicans and Democrats would like to address missile defense, and relations with Russia more broadly. There are also differences between the hawkish and isolationist wings of each party, differences between the Pentagon and State Department's approaches, differences among our allies who support the program, differences among the countries that would host the missile shield, and differences among military commanders themselves. It is a complicated issue that, due to practical and political concerns, is not on the docket for this year. Consider it another gift to "future Congress" from present Congress, along with the looming cuts in defense and social programs, rewriting the tax code, and dealing with the consequences of an unstable Afghanistan once we leave.

Clarifying the exchange later, President Obama pointed out that his comment reflected the prevailing political wisdom about the realities of an election year. The media would pounce on anything that smelled of controversy, and, as he said to reporters, "I think the stories you guys have been writing over the last 24 hours is pretty good evidence of that."

My favorite part of the whole episode was President Medvedev's response to Romney. Watch him tell Romney to watch his mouth before Russia slaps the taste out of it. Okay, not to that extent, but still a thorough rebuke of Mitt's sabre rattling.

I agree with Romney that Russia has blocked numerous U.S. and international initiatives, chief (in my mind) being a coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. That being said, calling Russia our "number one foe" does not do much good for bilateral relations, nor does it make them more likely to support such initiatives in the future. It was pure political pandering, which is fine. I tune into MSNBC and CNN and Politco on a regular basis to watch such horse races and machismo contests, for entertainment more than information. The Russian Foreign Ministry later dismissed the "emotional statement" as being dictated by "the particular demands of political battle."

It's good that Medvedev, his United Party, and the Foreign Ministry reacted soberly to what otherwise could have been interpreted as a serious affront to a proud nation still coming to terms with its drastically decreased geopolitical importance. It's a response I wouldn't particularly expect from Vladimir Putin, whose bombastic anti-American stances are as much a part of his popularity as his cold tough-guy  demeanor, when he returns to the presidency later this year. However, it is generally believed that Russia's leaders, whether Putin or Medvedev, would prefer to work with Obama as opposed to Romney, so toning down the significance of the comment may be a conscious decision to avoid embarrassing the White House. President Medvedev in particular has had a great rapport with Obama, with both viewing themselves as a new generation of leader that does not view the world strictly through Cold War-era lenses.

As far as his statement that "reason never hurt a presidential candidate," President Medvedev is clearly not familiar with American politics. Just sit tight, enjoy the show, and watch us prove you wrong, Dmitry.

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