Paul Greenberg

The vocabulary has changed since Munich, appeasement having come into bad odor, but the operating principle is pretty much unchanged -- even if it's now known as flexibility.

For just a minute the slippery little Chicago pol inside the Great American Leader, the prophet of Hope and Change, was revealed for the world to hear. Such a description may be unfair -- to Chicago pols. Whatever can be said about the Daleys, they never left any microphones on to record their machinations, not to my knowledge or any prosecutor's.

We the mere People aren't supposed to notice the man behind the curtain at these Oz-like international conferences, but how could anyone help listening?

What some of us had long suspected, but didn't dare assert, now has been confirmed by the highest source. In his own words. In his own voice. Off-guard moments may speak louder than any formal address.

Dmitri Medvedev, and the rest of the Russian establishment, doubtless know whom they they're dealing with, and have known even before this president announced he was resetting American policy when it comes to our friends in Moscow.

President Medvedev certainly didn't sound surprised. "I understand," he replied. He assured the American president he would pass the word to the real power in this new/old Russia: "I will transmit this information to Vladimir and I stand with you."

No doubt, the Russian meant to be assuring. But this conversation was anything but assuring to some of us back home -- those of us who can remember where appeasement has a way of leading.

As for Russia's once and future tsar, V. Putin, no doubt he'll be assured. Much too assured.

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The administration's bad week only began in Seoul. Back in Washington, in the Supreme Court of the United States, to be specific, the president's Signature Achievement, the great new American health-care system, was running into a little problem called the Constitution of the United States. At least in the eyes of some justices of the court, especially the one supposed to be the new Sandra Day O'Connor, the new swing man/weathervane. The questions from His Honor Anthony Kennedy were pointing to some serious doubts about the new law's constitutionality.

Remember when Nancy Pelosi, who was still speaker of the House at the time, was asked if she was concerned about the constitutional grounds of this brave new health system? "Are you serious?" she replied, which was her way of not replying. It turns out the Supreme Court of the United States may be serious indeed.

How seriously the administration's arguments in defense of its crowning achievement can be taken is another question. Monday, its solicitor-general was telling the court that Obamacare's penalties are not a tax that had to be collected before the court could uphold it. But by Tuesday, it had become a tax well within the government's power to regulate trade under the Constitution's commerce clause.

So when is a tax not a tax? Answer: When it suits the administration's purposes that day.

The advocate arguing the case for Obamacare before the distinguished justices is a fine lawyer. It's just that the law he's trying to defend is not so fine.

But what's most impressive about the administration's legal case -- and its foreign policy -- is not its flexibility. It's the cynicism of it. It's the no-longer-hidden contempt for the American people, who aren't supposed to notice these transparent little tricks. Even when the microphone is on. Even when this administration's constitutional arguments change daily.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.