Cliff May

Medvedev, at the time of the March exchange, two months away from amiably returning the Russian presidency to Putin, told Obama: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir and I stand with you.” Medvedev stands with Obama? How should we interpret that?

The major media didn’t really try. The New York Times described the conversation as a “private moment of political candor.” Reuters called it an “unusually frank exchange.”

Few journalists asked for more information, and those who did seemed satisfied with boilerplate responses such as that delivered by White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes: “I think as you saw from their remarks, there was a very positive tone. . . . President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile defense cooperation going forward.”

As for Romney, he said he found all this “alarming and troubling,” adding: “This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people.”

I’m not even sure what that means. It certainly avoids the most disturbing questions. Among them: Is it acceptable for an American president to promise to accommodate despots on vital matters of national security, cutting the American people out of the discussion?

Several of Romney’s foreign-policy advisers did send Obama an open letter, but it contained a laundry list of complaints — which served to blur rather than sharpen the focus. Since then, neither Romney nor the super PACs supporting him have given much attention to the Obama/Medvedev exchange. There is one ad, available on YouTube only, not broadcast on TV, that makes light of the affair, showing the president as a James Bond/Austin Powers character assigned to a diabolical mission.

Senior political operatives have told me that to air a serious commercial with enough repetition to have a chance of engaging independent voters — even just in swing states — would cost no less than $8 million, funds Romney’s advisers think it unwise to divert from the economic issues weighing most heavily on voters’ minds.

Maybe so. But politics aside, election campaigns are meant to be great battles of ideas. Surely decisions about the strategy for defending American lives are worth a speech or two. One also has to wonder: If, a year or so from now, Americans learn what Obama was telling the Kremlin and don’t like it, will they ask why no one — not the “watchdogs” in the major media, their representatives in Congress, or even the president’s opponent — made a serious effort to warn them?

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.