As President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ended a public conference in South Korea (a nation demonstrably threatened by North Korean ballistic missiles), a still-open microphone inadvertently recorded a stunning tete-a-tete. The brief but jaw-dropping act of personal diplomacy yoked U.S. and Russian arguments over missile defense systems, a serious international security issue of long-term geo-strategic consequence, to Obama's short-term domestic political plan to secure his own re-election come November.
The whispered exchange:
Obama: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it's important for him (Putin) to give me space."
Medvedev: "Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you ..."
Obama: "This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility."
Medvedev: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir."
Accompanying video imagery, of professionally formal faces masking noxious cynicism, is available on the Web.
Obama and his press apologists dismiss "The Missile Message," spinning it as a minor gaffe. Balderdash. Obama and Medvedev are their nations' top diplomats as well as leaders, so the personal diplomatic exchange, though arrogant, flamingly stupid and brazenly conniving, isn't minor. The apologists' agitprop disregards the men's privileged positions and insults common sense. But then a fair inference drawn from Obama's request for "space" is he believes he can tell the American people any jit and jot, and the rubes will believe. When he ran against Hillary Clinton, Obama opposed the individual mandate. In office, it became the cornerstone of his health care legislation.
The patron-donor of Obama's re-election space, former KGB agent and authoritarian strong man president-elect Vladimir Putin, will soon replace Medvedev. However, like many strong men on the planet, to include his pal, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Putin confronts his own peoples' demand for democratic change and economic revival.
Twitter-generation Russians opposing Putin know that he and his gang are the corrupt authors and beneficiaries of Russian-brand state cronyism, a vicious economic-political amalgam combining mafia greed and muscle with streaks of communism, fascism, corporatism and czarism. Charges of vote fraud and intimidation marred Putin's suspect re-election, but to ensure his grip on power he needed space to do what he had to do. Yes, Vladimir certainly understands Barack's request.
Losing the Cold War stung Russian pride. Putin portrays himself as the man who revived respect for Russia. As part of the act, he consistently stokes Cold War embers, to include Soviet-era anti-Americanism. The militant theater panders to hardline nationalists and distracts critics of his corruption and cronyism. Thus Obama's quid for Putin's quo is as obvious as it is geo-strategically foolish, for the U.S., U.S. allies and, ultimately, for Russia, as well. Barack will give Vladimir an international diplomatic triumph; its domestic political dividends will strengthen Putin's personal power.
Missile defense is Putin's favorite Cold War ember. In the last decade, the U.S. and NATO have built the diplomatic and technological framework to deploy an anti-missile defense designed to stop an Iranian missile volley. Turkey agreed to host a key radar site. The multilayered shield is actually rather robust, though Obama weakened it in September 2009 when he eliminated ground-based interceptors (GBI) deployment. GBIs have anti-ICBM capabilities but were no counter-force to Russian strategic missiles.
Still, Russia objected. Obama dumped the GBIs, despite howls from U.S. ally Poland.
Would Khomeinist Iran try to politically blackmail Europe with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile? Japan and South Korea decided missile defense was a sane response to North Korea's nuclear extortion racket. Exposing London and Paris to the nuclear whims of millenarian religious nuts is utterly stupid diplomacy. Countering NATO's shield thus puts Iran's ayatollahs in political debt to Russia. Putin's Moscow prefers sphere of influence to a sphere of shared security.
Obama appears to have decided his re-election, with the aid of Putin, is more important than supporting U.S. allies and pursuing responsible collective security measures against rogue regimes. Hope and change? No. A self-centered politician's political security first. American security? Not so much.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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