President Barack Obama would like to do some things for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and President-elect Vladimir Putin that he does not want American voters to know about before they decide whether to re-elect him in November.
That was the intended-to-be-secret message Obama gave Medvedev in South Korea on Monday. But Obama was caught delivering the message on tape -- and, no matter how the liberal media try to spin it, the moment is destined to become emblematic of Obama as a man and as a president.
"On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved. But it's important for him to give me space,'' Obama told Medvedev -- the "him" being Putin.
"Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space," said Medvedev. "Space for you --"
"'This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility," said Obama.
"Yeah. Yeah. I understand," said Medvedev. "I will transmit this information to Vladimir. I understand."
A little context is needed here.
The last time Obama ran for president, the incumbent, George W. Bush, was advancing a plan to place a ballistic missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. The system would include a radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 advanced interceptor missiles in Poland. The Bush administration intended the system to give the United States the ability to knock down missiles Iran might fire at U.S. allies and U.S. forces in Europe.
Obama, ever mindful of voters -- including those of Eastern European ancestry -- clinging to their guns, their religion, and their belief that defending yourself and your friends against a missile attack is morally superior to launching a missile attack, was wary of flat-out opposing a defense against Iranian missiles.
On June 16, 2007, when the president of the Poland visited the United States, Obama sounded a mildly hawkish note.
"Since joining NATO in 1997," Obama said, "Poland has become one of America's most important strategic partners, dedicating troops and resources to our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We now have an opportunity to build on this long and deep relationship," Obama continued. "Here is how we can. ... The Bush administration has been developing plans to deploy interceptors and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as part of a missile defense system designed to protect against the potential threat of Iranian nuclear armed missiles. If we can responsibly deploy missile defenses that would protect us and our allies we should, but only when the system works."
Obama said nothing then about not deploying the missile defense because he wanted to appease the Russians -- who opposed it. But then Obama was elected president.
In September 2009, more than three full years before his next election, but just a week before he was scheduled to meet with Russian President Medvedev, Obama announced he was scrapping the plan to deploy the anti-Iranian missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. He would replace it, he said, with a partially mobile missile-defense system that could be more quickly deployed.
Medvedev instantly hailed the "good conditions" Obama had created. "I am ready to continue our dialogue," he said.
Obama and Medvedev then negotiated the "New START," a treaty calling for modest reductions in deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and missiles.
Two years have passed, another election looms. Obama's administration is now advancing its own plan for a missile defense in Europe to protect against Iranian missiles.
In November, Medvedev announced that if the U.S. deployed this missile defense in Europe, the Russians would target it with offensive missiles deployed in Europe.
Earlier this month, Medvedev's ally, Putin, who has served as prime minister for the last four years, was elected to a third, non-consecutive term as Russia's president. Putin ran on a platform of naming Medvedev his prime minister. Medvedev had stepped aside to let Put lead the ticket.
In some ways, the Putin-Medvedev campaign sounded like a liberal campaign in the United States.
The Congressional Research Service reported that according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the Russian elections, "Prime Minister Putin received an advantage in media coverage, and authorities mobilized local officials and resources to garner support for Putin."
"Besides these efforts," said CRS, "Putin boosted or promised large increases in military and government pay, pensions and student stipends."
Putin outlined his "election manifesto" in a series of seven newspaper articles, including one about what he understood "democracy" to mean.
"He defined this democracy in terms of the rights of Russians to employment, free health care and education, although he admitted that civil society recently had demanded more political participation," CRS reported.
It was to this once-and-future Russian president that outgoing Russian President and future Prime Minister Medvedev promised to bring Obama's message.
"After my election, I have more flexibility," Obama said.
"Yeah. Yeah. I understand," said an apparently sympathetic Medvedev. "I will transmit this information to Vladimir."
In his domestic politics, Obama is often profoundly disingenuous. But in his meeting with Medvedev, we may have caught a rare glimpse of our president expressing unfeigned empathy.