During talks on missile defence in Seoul, South Korea last week, United States President Barack Obama was picked up by a microphone telling the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have ‘more flexibility’ to negotiate the issue of missiles after the US presidential elections this November.
Opponents of the Obama administration were quick to express their concern over the remark. In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney described the president’s remarks as ‘revealing’ and ‘alarming’, while fellow candidate Newt Gingrich asked in an interview with CNN: ‘how many other countries has the president promised that he will have a lot more flexibility the morning he doesn’t have to answer to the American people?’ However, while there may be genuine debate to be had over the extent to which Obama can expect more political freedom should he retain the presidency in November, these remarks are aimed more at generating a degree of anxiety and uncertainty.
While the White House maintained that progress on the issue of missile defence would be unlikely in an election year, the implications of Obama’s comments also sparked heated correspondence between Romney’s advisers and those of the Obama administration. In an open letter, foreign policy advisers to Romney suggested that Obama’s remarks were indicative of ‘weakness and inconstancy’, and asked the president to elaborate on what he had meant by the term ‘flexibility’. Despite this request, the letter appeared to rely on the ambiguity of the word in order to imply the president’s misleading policies and the uncertainty he would unleash were he to be re-elected. The letter provided numerous criticisms of the administration’s handling of various foreign policy issues, including Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran’s nuclear programme and the defence budget, applying the menacing and mysterious notion of post-election ‘flexibility’ to each instance. The following day, however, national security advisers within Obama’s re-election campaign wrote back, addressing Romney directly. In their response, the team addressed each of the issues raised by Romney’s advisers in detail, and posed a few critical questions of their own. They pointed out Romney’s lack of policy on Afghanistan, for example, and attacked his views on the United States’ relationship with Russia.
The latter criticism stems from Romney’s repeatedly hostile comments towards Russia, which he described as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ in an interview with CNN. He reinforced this view in his article for Foreign Policy, stating that Moscow ‘has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America’s national security.’ Romney has faced heat in this area not only from the Obama administration but also from Russia. President Medvedev has commented that this attitude ‘smells of Hollywood’, adding that ‘we are in 2012 and not the mid-1970s.’ While Romney’s historical interests appear to lie in the 1980s, as demonstrated by his recent enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’ foreign policy, Medvedev’s assessment correctly identifies a considerable amount of animosity towards Russia expressed by Romney that has not characterised the Obama administration. In their letter, for example, Obama’s national security experts reiterated that ‘strategic cooperation with Russia is essential for countering the Iranian nuclear threat’, while the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said that the US relationship with Russia allows differences to be discussed ‘candidly and openly’.
Both Romney’s campaign team and the Obama administration will undoubtedly continue to express their disagreement over this and other foreign policy issues as the presidential election draws closer. However, it appears that this latest microphone mishap has revealed more about Romney’s views on international affairs than about Obama’s post-election intentions.