In March 2012, President Obama whispered to placeholder Russian president Dmitri Medvedev that he needed "space" on matters like missile defense until 2013. "After my election, I'll have more flexibility," the president blurted into an unsuspected open microphone. "I will convey this information to Vladimir," Medvedev promised, managing not to smirk outwardly.
Medvedev did not need to deliver the message. Obama has telegraphed his weakness in a thousand ways, starting with the "reset" that was premised on the idea that relations between Russia and the U.S. were frayed because we had been without the transformative leadership of Barack Hussein Obama. It didn't seem to occur to Obama that Russian behavior might have had something to do with it.
In April of this year, Obama sent his national security advisor to Moscow with a proposal to share missile defense information. In June, he delivered a speech in Berlin offering more reductions in nuclear arsenals. They were absurdly backward-looking proposals that wouldn't advance U.S. security one iota. Putin could have pocketed them, but he was interested in sending a message of his own -- he ignored Obama.
The United States, Great Britain and others have put forward measures at the United Nations Security Council to condemn and impose sanctions on the Syrian government for its attacks on civilians. At every pass, Russia (often with Chinese cooperation) has threatened vetoes, even as it has kept up a steady supply of arms to Bashar Assad.
Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, acknowledged the obvious in May, announcing: It is "our considered view, after months of efforts on chemical weapons and after two and a half years of efforts ... is that there is no viable path forward in this Security Council." The reason? "Russia, in particular."
"Putin openly despises your president," Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political analyst, told The New York Times.
When Edward Snowden was playing mouse to the American cat, the administration, through John Kerry, warned Russia that it would "undoubtedly affect relations" between the two nations if Russia granted Snowden asylum. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, slapped him down, saying, "We consider the attempts to accuse Russia of violation of U.S. laws and even some sort of conspiracy, which on top of all that are accompanied by threats, as absolutely ungrounded and unacceptable." Kerry offered a propitiatory bleat the following day: "We are not looking for a confrontation. We are not ordering anybody. We are simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody."
Putin poked a metaphorical thumb into Obama's eye by granting asylum to Snowden.
President Obama gives every indication of being confused. Explaining Putin's truculence a few months ago on the Tonight Show, Obama offered, "There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality. And what I ... say to President Putin is that's the past and we've got to think about the future, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do."
Putin does not want to "cooperate". He wants to aggrandize Russian power and marginalize the United States. Thanks to this president, he is succeeding beyond his wildest dreams.
Secretary Kerry now journeys to Geneva to negotiate with Lavrov about supposedly disarming the nation that Putin has been sedulously arming for years. Russia, the nation that has protected its war criminal client in Damascus, now gets to play impartial mediator. Obama grasped this nettle because his own incompetent and contradictory moves had left him facing a defeat in the House and possibly even in the Democratically controlled Senate on a vote to use a modicum of force that Obama keeps saying will not do any real damage.
These are not just matters of leaders' egos or appearances. This loss of standing by Obama can have bitterly dangerous consequences for the whole world. Putin isn't just preening with insulting New York Times op-eds. On the day his Times piece appeared, Putin announced that Russia will supply Iran with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and a new nuclear reactor at the Bushehr plant.
The true stakes of this "great game" thus come into focus for those with eyes to see. Just as it protected Syria, Russia is signaling that Iran too will be defended. Iran, of course, isn't going for unstable and comparatively weak chemical weapons. It's going for nuclear weapons.
Obama's arrogance mixed with incompetence has brought this nightmare much closer. This is what "flexibility" looks like.