26 March 2012

Obama’s Momentous “Hot Mike” Moment with Medvedev

Diplomacy is about uttering le mot juste in public and communicating frankly in private.

President Obama’s speech writing, protocol and foreign relations teams have not been “punching above their weight” in the awkward, empty words that are repeated to friendly small nations.  But sometimes the unscripted exchanges between international leaders can be much more meaningful.  After a 90 minute meeting between President Obama and the current Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (the puppet of incoming President Vladimir Putin), the leaders exchanged some small talk that was caught on a hot mike before the press availability.

During this sotto voce tête-à-tête, President Obama asked the Russians for space to deal with missile defense.  Medvedev indicated that he got the message about space.  Obama noted “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”  Intermediary Medvedev indicated that he would transmit this information to Vladimir [Putin].  Some small talk!

When pressed about the hot mike comments, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications Ben Rhodes opted to obfuscate. Rhodes stated on the record: “there is a lot of rhetoric around this issue — there always is — in both countries.” .  In unattributed comments, Obama Administration officials:

This is a political year in which the Russians just had an election, we’re about to have a presidential and congressional elections — this is not the kind of year in which we’re going to resolve incredibly complicated issue like this. So there’s an advantage to pulling back and letting the technical experts work on this as the president has been saying.

That being said, it does reveal a hubris from our elected Chief Executive and acknowledgment that he can do as his wants during a second term.

It seems unusual for the President of the United States to ask the powers that be of an international adversary for “space” until his re-election.  But then again, Barack Obama campaigned throughout the world for his election in 2008.  Who can forget the crowd of 200,000 Germans gathered in the Tiergarten in Berlin to hear the candidate of hope and change (and get free beer).   Then there was the photo op of Obama campaigning at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Mr. Obama asked for this space from the Russian Federation.  From the beginning of his term, the Obama Administration has been intent to push the “reset” button with the Kremlin.  Unfortunately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got the translation wrong and the gag gift actually said “Overcharge”.

Alas, these overtures have not yielded results in markedly improved foreign relations with Moscow, particularly evidenced in the Russian intransigence over tough sanctions over the Iranian atomic bomb efforts.

It might be worth remembering promises that candidate Barack Obama made about the military during the 2008 campaign.  Obama vowed to cut unproven missile defense systems, slowing the development of future combat systems , not weaponizing space, and striving to create a world without nuclear weapons.  Might Mr. Obama been speaking of something more concrete when he was sending a message through Medvedev.

When President Obama approved the 2012 Defense Authorization Act in January, he issued a signing statement (a device which he previously opposed under President George W. Bush) which objected to a provision aimed at protecting the US Standard Missile 3.  Section 1227 of the Defense Authorization prohibits spending any funds that would be used to give Russian officials access to sensitive missile-defense technology as part of a cooperation agreement without first sending Congress a report identifying the specific secrets, how they'd be used and steps to protect the data from compromise.  In the signing statement, President Obama indicated that he would treat this provision as being “non-binding”.

Many expected the November elections to be a referendum on domestic issues.  But Mr. Obama’s Hot Mike moment with Medvedev is a stirring reminder that constitutional considerations and clear eyed appraisals of Obama’s international affair must be part of the picture.

h/t: ABCNews
h/t: Claremont Institute

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