Despite a still struggling economy and a job performance polling below 50 percent in most polls, President Obama has been able to tout his foreign policy accomplishments as one of the reasons he should be re-elected in November. Obama’s recently concluded trip to South Korea to liaise with world leaders to address nuclear security and the Iranian nuclear saga went according to schedule, until an “open mic” caught Obama making rather casual comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stating he believed he would have more flexibility to address lingering issues related to nuclear arms reduction after the November election.
“On all these issues, particularly on missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him (Vladimir Putin) to give me space,” Obama, apparently unaware that his mic was on and recording the conversation, was overheard telling Medvedev. “This is my last election…after my election I have more flexibility.” Medvedev responded, “I understand you. I transmit this information to Vladimir (Putin), and I stand with you.”
For Mitt Romney - a candidate much like Obama in 2008 - without any formal foreign policy experience, the “open mic” moment afforded him an opportunity to undercut the president. But what Romney expressed is what most politicos and foreign policy experts already knew - that President Obama will not be able to negotiate successfully with the Russians over missile defense and other issues until after November, if he is re-elected.
Most administrations approaching the conclusion of their first term and seeking a second, find that any significant accomplishments are unlikely unless completed within their first two years. The New START Treaty took many months to negotiate with the Russians, which paled in comparison to the wrangling that it took to get it passed in the Senate. If the administration had not gotten the New START Treaty and the Panamanian, Korean and Colombian free trade agreements passed when they did, Congress would certainly not have passed them as of last year.
In critiquing the president in several interviews, Romney also roiled the Russians with his suggestion that Russia is the “Number one geopolitical foe” of the United States. This of course negates what most observers would regard as the top foreign policy concern of the United States - whether it be Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, Syria, or North Korea. If Romney defeats Obama in November, he will need a very big “reset” button to attempt to make things right with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
Following Romney’s comments, Medvedev said during a news conference that Romney’s assertion that Russia should not be confused with the same country depicted in many Cold War espionage films said the comments “smells of Hollywood.” “Look at your watch,” Medvedev said to reporters. “It is 2012, not the mid-1970s. No matter what party someone belongs to, he should pay attention to political realities.”
Romney explained to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he was alarmed by Obama’s casual conversation with Medvedev: “Russia continues to support Syria, supports Iran, has fought us with the crippling sanctions we wanted to have the world put in place against Iran. Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage…For this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia is very, very troubling, very alarming. I’m very, very concerned. I think the American people are going to feel the same way. This is a president who is telling us one thing and is doing something else, and is planning on doing something else even more frightening.”
Obama, seeking to bury the story, told reporters following meetings in Seoul, “The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.” Romney’s characterization is not necessarily untrue. Russia has used its veto power on the U.N. Security Council to block action on Syria and has shown, through its membership in the BRICS, a proclivity against tougher economic sanctions directed at Iran outside of the framework of the United Nations.
U.S.-Russian relations transcend the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. The United States relies on Russian assistance in counterterrorism, Afghanistan, shoring up loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Republics, international narcotics trafficking, WMD proliferation and reducing American and Russian nuclear stockpiles, which has become a cause celeb for Obama.
Obama has calculated that the Russians would be amendable to significant reductions in their nuclear stockpiles if he negotiates with the Russians in good faith over missile defense. This process was started several years ago in an effort to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations, when Obama ordered a different configuration to the missile defense system - the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) - planned for construction in Eastern Europe. The original system envisioned a radar base that was to be built in the Czech Republic with interceptors housed in Poland.
The EPAA is designed to intercept ballistic missiles launched from “rogue” nations from interceptors housed in Poland and now Romania. The Russians have been highly critical of the system first announced by the Bush administration as they claim it would undermine their own nuclear deterrent. “This is not a matter of hiding the ball,” Obama said. “I want to see us gradually, systematically reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.”
Now that Romney has antagonized the Russians, he might find it difficult to negotiate with them over a whole host of issues, much less getting Russia on board with prodding the Iranians to return to the negotiating table or facilitating America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan if he defeats Obama in November. As U.S.-Pakistan relations deteriorated following the raid in May of last year that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the U.S. has sought to find another route to get supplies into Afghanistan that would bypass Pakistan altogether.
Roughly 52 percent of U.S. supplies travel the Northern Distribution Network through Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Through a deal brokered with the Russian government, the U.S. will continue to use this route which will become especially important as the 2014-drawdown date approaches. “These northern routes are far less dangerous than the supply routes that go through Pakistan, where militants often attack American and NATO convoys. As the Obama administration’s surge in Afghanistan draws to a close and we begin to reduce our military presence there, these routes will become even more significant. Indeed, the United States might be able to draw down its forces from Afghanistan safely, rather than subjecting American convoys to attacks while passing through Pakistan,” Dov S. Zakheim and Paul J. Saunders write in the New York Times.
The “open mic” moment and Romney’s characterization of Russia as America’s “Number one geopolitical foe” has injected domestic politics into a foreign trip that addressed some substantive issues: nuclear security, Korean reunification, Iran, U.S. and Russian cooperation on the cleanup of former nuclear sites in Kazakhstan and Afghan-Pakistan relations through meetings between Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. While the Romney campaign and conservative bloggers saw an opportunity to undercut Obama on foreign policy, it is not at all clear if they’ll be able to use the “open mic” moment to their advantage.
The “open mic” moment is being broadly used by the Romney campaign to launch a more strident series of criticisms of the Obama administration and its handling of foreign policy. Part of this offensive was an op-ed, “Bowing to the Kremlin,” published in Foreign Policy were Romney wrote, “The (Obama) record shows that President Obama has already been pliant on missile defense and other areas of nuclear security. Without extracting meaningful concessions from Russia, he abandoned our missile defense sites in Poland. He granted Russia new limits on our nuclear arsenal. He capitulated to Russia’s demand that a United Nations resolution on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program exclude crippling sanctions.”
“Moscow has rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues. It has continued to arm the regime of Syria’s vicious dictator and blocked multilateral efforts to stop the ongoing carnage there. Across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America’s national security. For three years, the sum total of President Obama’s policy toward Russia has been: ‘We give, Russia gets,” Romney argued.
Time will tell whether the Romney campaign will be able to undermine the president’s perceived strengths on foreign policy. Romney has very noticeably adopted neoconservative positions on military spending, arguing for the need to keep at sea all 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, hardening his rhetoric towards China and Russia, and positioning himself on the side of Senators McCain, Liebermann and Graham on staying the course in Afghanistan despite high disapprovals of the war. Speaker of the House, John Boehner, when asked if he agreed with Romney assertion, “While the president’s overseas, I think it’s appropriate that people not be critical of him or of our country.”
While arguing that Obama has weakened the United States in all areas of foreign policy, Romney has yet to posit any strong positions of his own in regards to Afghanistan and Iran, other than to argue that the Obama administration’s policies have failed. Romney’s characterization of Russia would preemptively put a Romney administration in the inevitable position of having to placate the Kremlin before substantive issues are dealt with.
Daniel Wagner of Country Risk Solutions suggested that there is a wider issue in regards to Romney’s Russia comments, “Mr. Romney will ultimately regret having chosen firstly to demonstrate such a lack of sophistication about foreign policy in his simplistic and outdated comments, and secondly having shown once again that he is a political chameleon who will change his colors and say just about anything to get elected.”