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.
“Putin has made it very, very clear his position on the missile-defense issue,” Kuchins said. “That is to try to block or delay the deployment of any kind of missile-defense system. This goes to the core of Russia’s own concept of strategic security.”
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a leading critic of administration policy of ballistic missile defense and the reduction of U.S. strategic nuclear stockpiles, said that Obama’s words revealed his true intent.
“We know the president has significantly reduced funding and curtailed development of the U.S. national missile-defense system, undermining our ability to effectively intercept long-range ballistic missiles,” Kyl said in a statement. “And we know the president has doubled down on efforts to reduce our nuclear arsenal while failing to honor his promises to modernize the aging nuclear-weapons complex. “What we don’t know is what President Obama has in mind for after the election, when he would gain some ‘flexibility’ in negotiating with the Russians.”
Kyl called on the Russians to “shed some light” on Americans “left in the dark” by Obama’s missile-defense policies and his future use of “flexibility.”
Obama’s 2013 budget request for modernizing U.S. nuclear stockpiles is $372 million less than needed to keep pace with the current 10-year modernization budget. Thepresident did not object in the 2012 budget when Congress cut funds for nuclear-weapon modernization by $400 million. The administration has also delayed for at least five years construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The facility, known as the CMRR was, according to the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, due to be completed by 2021. Republicans pushed for assurances from Obama during Senate debate on ratifying the New START pact in 2010 that CMRR would be built on schedule. Arms control advocates have praised the delayed action on CMRR.
That’s the technical side of the arms-control argument. Important, but not as Tweetable and Facebook-friendly as Etch A Sketch or, possibly, “space” and “flexibility.”
Kuchins and Carafano, neither of whom are political experts, couldn’t agree on the long-term importance of Obama’s comments. “We’re going to hear a lot about ‘space’ and ‘flexibility’ in TV commercials from the Republicans,” Kuchins predicted. “Will it matter in the campaign? My guess is no,” Carafano said. “Obama will just fluff it away. I don’t think this is going to move any votes.”
Fehrnstrom used an Obama phrase to describe the coming Romney transition to a general election: hitting "a reset button."
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used that term to describe a thaw in U.S. and Russian relations after the tense clashes with President Bush over missile defense, Iraq and Iran.
Whether Obama's "space" and "flexibility" mistake lives until November or disappears in this week's churning D.C. legal debate over health care, there's one thing it has in come with Fehrnstrom's Etch A Sketch blunder.
Obama probably wishes he could "shake it up and restart all over again."