President Obama didn’t intend the world to hear him tell outgoing Russian president Dmitri Medvedev that he’d have “more flexibility” to accommodate the Kremlin’s concerns about missile defense and other issues after the election in November. But as his now infamous meeting with Medvedev in Seoul drew to a close on March 26, a hot microphone caught the president saying just that, adding: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him”—by which he meant incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin—“to give me space.”
In the days that followed, congressmen and commentators rightly wondered on what other critical issues the president might show “more flexibility” if he were to win a second term. Might the president offer concessions to Iran rather than stand firm in his insistence that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable? Might he accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and go to greater lengths to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban? Might he once again pressure the Israeli government on settlements and more once he was safely beyond his reelection?
The president’s inadvertently public comment raises serious questions about a possible gulf between his administration’s public statements and his actual views on foreign policy. But what do the president’s comments mean for missile defense and nuclear weapons—the subject that the two leaders were actually discussing?
President Obama’s hostility to ballistic missile defense is well documented. In 2001, he said on a Chicago television show, “I don’t agree with a missile defense system.” During the 2008 presidential campaign, he declared, “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.”
Even so, he stunned lawmakers and allies in September 2009 when he announced his decision to scrap President George W. Bush’s plans to establish missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic capable of protecting the United States and Europe from ballistic missile attacks from Iran. This action damaged U.S. credibility in the region and was widely seen as a sop to the Russians in an effort to get Moscow to compromise on further nuclear arms reductions.
Although the Obama administration has moved to replace the Bush sites with a system using different technology to protect against short- and medium-range missile threats from Iran, Moscow remains opposed, and Obama’s friends in the arms control community have relentlessly pressed him to abandon those efforts, too.
More recently, the president has reneged on his promise to support funding to modernize America’s aging nuclear arsenal and supporting facilities—a pledge that he made to lawmakers during Senate debate over the controversial New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia in December 2010.
Moreover, while the New START treaty limits the United States to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, there are now reports that the president has directed the Pentagon to study the option of aggressively, and perhaps unilaterally, reducing America’s nuclear deterrent by up to 80 percent—down to as few as 300 deployed strategic warheads. In the meantime, Russia, China, Pakistan, and other nuclear-armed nations are ramping up their efforts to modernize—and, in many cases, expand—their nuclear arsenals.
Which brings us back to missile defense. The United States has repeatedly assured Russia that the emerging missile defense system is aimed at Iran and not at Russia’s capabilities. Yet Russia continues to insist that it is alarmed by U.S. efforts. And instead of standing firm, senior Obama administration officials talk of the need to come up with more concessions to Russia in an effort to “build trust.”
This is in line with a Russia policy that has been characterized by an interest in doing whatever it takes to avoid conflict with Moscow, even if it means overlooking various and nefarious Russian activities around the world, as well as abuses by the Putin-Medvedev regime at home.
Therein lies the danger of a second Obama term for missile defense and the U.S. nuclear stockpile. They stand in the way of the supposed promise of the “reset” with Russia and of Obama’s fanciful vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
The microphone mishap suggests that President Obama has not been sobered by hard experience during his first term. He has put some of his dangerous dreams on hold—until his reelection. After that, watch out. At least we can now say that, if he is reelected, we were warned—inadvertently—by what he was caught saying, on a hot microphone, to President Medvedev.