Obama's 'Space' for Russia
The sound bite went viral -- the president of the United States asking the Russian president to carry a message to Putin for "space" in dealing with contentious missile defense issues until after the election so the American president would have "more flexibility." The photos went viral as well: President Obama's hand on Medvedev's knee, the smiling president with his arm around Medvedev's shoulder, the two of them sipping tea.
It is bad, of course, on many levels, but historically consistent. The president is notoriously hostile to missile defense, as are the Russians. The Russians are particularly hostile to U.S. missile defenses, which they believe threaten their offensive missile programs, such as those planned by NATO for Europe during the Bush administration. In September 2009, Mr. Obama introduced his Russian "reset" in a speech at Moscow's New Economic School by adopting Russia's greatest concern as a point of bilateral agreement.
America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia ... on the fundamental issues that will shape this century, Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for co-operation," he said. Including, it seems, cooperation on Iran, which the Russians had assisted with (allegedly peaceful) nuclear technology at Bushehr. The President promised, "If the threat from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile program is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated.
Something the U.S. wanted for something Russia wanted -- but at whose expense? It didn't take long to find out.
Less than two months later, Mr. Obama pronounced the Iranian missile threat, if not "eliminated," then at least less than something to worry the Russians with, and he pulled the rug out from under America's relatively new NATO allies in Poland and the Czech Republic. They had made the politically difficult decision to accept the radar site and interceptor missiles in part to assert their autonomy from Russia and cement relations with the West. The project posed no threat to Russian capabilities (although why NATO wouldn't be expected to protect itself from a potential Russian strike is unclear). The U.S. demoted Poland and the Czech Republic because Moscow and Washington both preferred no missile defense to some missile defense in Europe.
But if the idea was to bring Russia on board as regards Iran, it didn't work. Russia continued to support the Bushehr reactor and engage in energy and military trade with Iran despite increasing Western sanctions. Most recently in January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against new sanctions on Iranian banking and oil sales.
Poland and the Czech Republic appear to have gone under the bus on behalf of the Russians for no U.S. gain, and now the Syrian people are joining them.
In late February, with violence in Syria escalating on a daily basis, Secretary of State Clinton was scathing in her denunciation of the Russian veto in the UN Security Council. Scathing! "It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people." She called the veto a "travesty."
Only two weeks later, Clinton was over her pique and ready to try again. But even in exchange for the whitewash of the Russian election ("The election had a clear winner, and we are ready to work with president-elect Putin as he is sworn in and assumes the responsibility of the presidency."), the best she could do was Russia's grudging acceptance of Kofi Annan's plan, which leaves Bashar al-Assad in power and requires only that he agree to an "inclusive" political process. On the other hand, al-Assad took 91% in the last Syrian election -- which by Clinton's standard would make him the "clear winner," so maybe she's just being consistent.
But if you wonder why the president is so eager to snuggle up to Russia despite the Russian propensity to do exactly as it wishes -- against our wishes -- it is also worth wondering about the president's relationship with those who might actually be America's friends and allies -- Poland, the Czech Republic, the Syrian people -- or Israel -- or those who might actually be America.
Trying to cover rising public anger over his tête-à-tête with Medvedev, the president blamed the Pentagon and the Congress, saying, "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."
It takes "blame America first" to a whole new level. "This stuff" is American foreign policy, and Americans should insist that it run through the Pentagon and the United States Congress, not through the president's Russian friends.
Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center. She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.