The Silly Outrage Over Obama's Conversation With Medvedev

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With the president, what you see is what you get. Critics who've accused him of bluffing on foreign affairs often have been proven wrong.

Someone call the John Birch Society: The president of the United States is up to some shady business with the Russians, and he's trying to hide it from us. Or at least that's what some commentators believe. Here's what has them so concerned:

"On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it's important for him to give me space," Mr. Obama could be heard saying to Mr. Medvedev, according a reporter from ABC News, who was traveling with the president.

"Yeah, I understand," the departing Russian president said. "I understand your message about space. Space for you ... ."

Mr. Obama then elaborated in a portion of the exchange picked up by the cameras: "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."

"I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir," Mr. Medvedev said, referring to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who just won an election to succeed Mr. Medvedev.

The reaction has been predictable. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in Human Events, "How depressingly cynical. How contemptuous of those he wants to re-elect him. It begs the question: What other plans does he have for a second term that he isn't advertising? What exactly would Flexible Obama do?" Priebus speculates darkly about tax increases, abandoning Israel, and an untrammeled EPA wreaking havoc. Mitt Romney hosted a fill-in-the-blank contest on Twitter for what Obama would do. (This is an impressive piece of chutzpah, given that Romney had just given an interview to The Weekly Standard promising to eliminate government agencies but refusing to say which ones). Marco Rubio says it spurred his endorsement of Mitt Romney. Even Jon Stewart got in on the action.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is overwrought. The matter at hand -- mostly missed amid the political recriminations -- is Russo-American disagreement over missile defense. Russia is uneasy about U.S. emplacements in Europe, especially in Poland, that would be part of a system to shoot down incoming missiles. Even if Obama is conceding a lot of ground, it's not some secret, unrevealed shift. Indeed, as far back as September 2009, hawks were complaining bitterly after his administration drastically retrenched on the missile-defense system.

On foreign affairs, Obama actually has a strong record of doing what he says he'll do. During the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton slammed him for his pledge to open direct negotiations with Iran. When he took office, he executed the plan -- with Clinton has his secretary of state. The jury's still out on how that worked. He also pledged to take unilateral action against Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." Both Clinton and John McCain assailed that comment as hopelessly naive and ill-advised, but it was just such a strike that killed Osama bin Laden, strongly vindicating the strategy.

Anyway, this is how diplomacy works. Matters are discussed behind closed doors, and timing is carefully calibrated; leaders have competing constituencies to serve and a limited amount of political capital that has to be budgeted. In this case, Obama faces a divided Congress that's deadlocked over even the most pressing domestic matters, like passing a budget or reauthorizing transportation funding. To imagine that any meaningful action is going to take place before the election is folly (the present controversy proves the point). After the election, pressure will be off the president and lawmakers alike. In fact, the lame duck session and the early months after the inauguration are the only time we're likely to see much movement before deadlock returns. And foreign policy is distinctly different from domestic policy. As James Fallows pointed out in his cover story on Barack Obama, foreign affairs is one area where the commander in chief has broad latitude. No need for Priebus to worry: Obama couldn't make domestic policy by fiat in the same way if he got elected to four terms in office. Of course, that's the crapshoot. Obama's greatest sin here appears to be cockiness about his reelection prospects.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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