BY WEBSTER BROOKS
Come on Barack. Not again. Will somebody please tell the President that you can’t discuss nuclear missile negotiations on an open microphone? Especially not in a press-filled room at a nuclear security conference in a presidential election year. It just doesn’t get worse than that.
But that’s exactly what happened in Seoul, Korea last week when President Obama had a private chat with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at the “2012 Nuclear Security Summit.” “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space…,” Obama told Medvedev. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
Medvedev, in a seemingly sympathetic vein replied “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…I will transmit this information to Vladimir [Putin].”
To be sure, from now until Election Day in November, Obama’s 60 second recorded sidebar with Medvedev will be red meat feeding the Republican Party attack machine. American living rooms will be deluged with countless granular black and white campaign ads assailing President Obama as an appeaser buckling under to Russian nuclear aggression. Indeed, what is truly bizarre about the “open mike debacle” is that Obama’s decision to cancel components of the missile defense shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009 was made from a position of commanding strength. That reality hasn’t changed, which is precisely why Obama still feels he can be “flexible.”
One really has to wonder why the Republicans are getting so apoplectic over Russia. After all, the missile defense system, created by President George W. Bush in 2008, was designed to deter North Korea and Iran’s missile threat to Europe, wasn’t it? It’s the same fantasy that Obama continues to perpetuate. In point of fact, the reason Obama cancelled the early warning radar deployment in Poland, and the construction of ten missile interceptor silos in the Czech Republic was to sweeten the negotiations with Russia to adopt the New START nuclear weapons reduction treaty that Congress, including Republicans, ultimately passed in 2010.
More importantly, Obama hoped the cancellation would secure a tradeoff from Moscow to support America’s drive to halt Iran’s nuclear program. In this regard, Obama was truly naive. It didn’t happen, nor is likely to happen in the future. Russia and Iran are geo-strategic partners in all things nuclear. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is not naïve. He’s a hard charging, ex-KGB man, who rides horses displaying his bare chest on the brisk Siberian steppes. When he takes office as President next month, Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the US and his position on the European missile defense shield will be equally as muscular.
Medvedev delivered that message three days before the Seoul nuclear security summit opened, at a Euro-Atlantic security forum in Moscow, when he said; “The door is not closed for talks on missile defense. We still have time, but it is running out.” Furthermore, he demanded written proof that Russia is not the intended target of U.S. missile defense efforts. In short, Putin called Obama’s bluff, with an old Reaganesque dictum: “trust but verify.” The West has refused to give Moscow legally–binding guarantees that the shield will not be used against it. Therein lays the dangerous impasse.
Given the shifting sands of the US-Russia nuclear equation, Obama’s “open mike” message to Medvedev was more of a warning than a plea to Putin to “go slow.” To drive home his point, on March 27, the Pentagon revealed its plans to deploy elements of its global antiballistic missile defense system in Asia and Middle East. Meanwhile Russia, has announced its testing of the new RS-24 multiple-warhead missile, which it says is designed to overcome missile defenses. It remains to be seen if the escalating threats, maneuvers, moves, countermoves and heated rhetoric between the United States and Russia is leading to the renewal of a cold war. But it certainly will make for great theatre when Vladimir Putin and Barak Obama meet at the mid-May G-8 summit in Chicago. When they do, will somebody please check the mikes?
WEBSTER BROOKS is Founder of the Brooks Foreign Policy Review, a former Senior Fellow for the University of Denver and a widely recognized expert on foreign affairs. He can be reached via Twitter @WBerberBrooks3