For a president gearing up to seek reelection in part based on muscular foreign-policy credentials, President Obama Monday gave his critics two words that may reverberate on the campaign trail as much as "Etch A Sketch."
“Space” and “flexibility.”
The obsessed political world fed for 48 hours on the Etch A Sketch metaphor by Mitt Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom. It might seem possible that same world would find an equally delectable feeding frenzy in a president promising another world leader unspecified postelection flexibility on missile defense. Time will tell.
Foreign-policy analysts wasted no time chewing it over.
“It has really opened him up to that kind of criticism of being ready to capitulate,” said Andy Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It was very unfortunate from that standpoint. In this case and with this topic, it’s really counterproductive.”
James Carafano, a national-security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that Obama’s remarks betrayed his real approach to arms control and ballistic-missile defense.
“He doesn’t believe in ballistic-missile defense as a way to protect the nation,” Carafano said. “He believes missile defense only makes sense in how it contributes to reductions in the overall nuclear arsenal. He’s willing to sacrifice missile defense in order to get reductions.”
On the campaign trail, Republicans pounced.
“This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people and not telling us what he's intending to do with regards to our missile-defense system,” Romney said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the GOP effort throughout the 1990s to increase ballistic missile defense budgets, accused Obama of “selling out.” “I don't see how any American could trust him ever again after that comment,” Gingrich told talk-radio host Rick Jensen on WDEL in Wilmington, Del. ”I think it means he’s going to sell out our entire missile-defense system.”
Obama’s inadvertent remarks came at the second annual Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. The summit is an outgrowth of Obama’s aggressive nuclear nonproliferation strategy that seeks the abolition of all nuclear weapon stockpiles.
Following his one-on-one meeting with outgoing Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, Obama said he needed “space” now so he could operate with greater “flexibility” on missile-defense negotiations after Election Day.
Obama was asking Medvedev to convey these needs to incoming Russian President Valdimir Putin. Medvedev is seen the world over as Putin’s underling – just this side of a puppet.
The move struck Kuchins, with CSIS, as curious. “I can’t imagine what he meant by flexibility on this issue,” Kuchins said. “That’s a big assumption; that the Russians are going to be more flexible. I just don’t see that. “
With the Etch A Sketch comment, Romney’s campaign was forced to explain whether, as the answer implied, the GOP front-runner would change course after securing the nomination. Obama’s comments, which he clearly did not intend to be heard, could at least raise questions about what he might have in mind on missile defense or other pressing issues with Russia if he were to win reelection. Both comments speak to longer-term calculations after overcoming a political hurdle. In both cases, Romney’s campaign and the White House swiftly denied any ulterior motives.
Kuchins and Carafano agreed that Russia sees U.S. ballistic missile defense in Europe as a threat to its sovereignty and regional dominance. Moscow opposes a U.S. system designed to intercept “rogue” missiles from Iran or Pakistan as a way to thwart Russian nuclear capabilities. Russia’s hostility has not been softened by Obama’s 2009 decision not to build a land-based missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Obama opted instead for a land-and-sea system with a small footprint in Poland and Romania.