Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.
By James M. Lindsay, CFR.org
President Obama got himself into hot water this week when he was overhead telling Russian president Dmitri Medvedev he would have “more flexibility” on issues like missile defense after the November election and that incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin should give him “space.”
The incident added to a long list of presidential and vice presidential “open mic” gaffes. During a sound-check before a 1984 radio interview, Ronald Reagan warmed up by saying, “My fellow Americans, I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” That got people’s hearts pounding.
President Biden famously called the signing of Obama’s health-care bill in 2010 “a big f***ing deal.” Parents of young children were not pleased.
Obama’s critics have blistered him for this week’s gaffe, because, well, that’s what critics do.
Mitt Romney says he is “very, very concerned” that the president is “looking for greater flexibility where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people.” Rick Santorum sees Obama’s comments as “suggesting that he is willing to sacrifice American security.” Newt Gingrich said the conversation amounted to an “extraordinary moment caught on tape where the president basically said to a Russian leader, ‘Please wait until after the election so I can sell out.‘” Speaker of the House John Boehner chimed in, sending the president a letter saying he was “alarmed to learn of the message you sent to incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin while in South Korea Monday.”
The open mic moment so upset Senator Marco Rubio that he promptly endorsed Mitt Romney for president. (That presumably was not the outcome that Senator Santorum or Speaker Gingrich wanted.) So be prepared for tough campaign ads this fall showing Obama talking to Medvedev with ominous music in the background. The ads won’t change many votes, but they will give campaign consultants something to do.
A remarkable thing about the open mic contretemps has been the near uniform assumption that President Obama is misleading the American public and telling the truth to the Russians. But what if that assumption is exactly backwards? Obama wouldn’t be the first president to use elections as an excuse to avoid giving a foreign leader what he or she wants, or to buy some much-needed time for his own policies.
The tactic might even be considered the hallmark of the statesman; successful politicians know that is frequently better to dissemble than be to blunt. In any event, you can bet dollars-to-doughnuts that some of Putin’s advisers are debating the possibility right now that they, and not American voters, are the ones being played.