Sometimes it's the unguarded moments that are the most revealing of all. President Obama just had such a moment at the summit in South Korea. "This is my last election," Obama told Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, in an exchange that was inadvertently picked up by microphones. "After my election I have more flexibility."
But flexibility to do what? The president mentioned missile defense to Medvedev as one area where the Kremlin should expect more flexibility. This is alarming.
It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House.
And it is not hard to understand why. The record shows that President Obama has already been pliant on missile defense and other areas of nuclear security. Without extracting meaningful concessions from Russia, he abandoned our missile defense sites in Poland. He granted Russia new limits on our nuclear arsenal. He capitulated to Russia's demand that a United Nations resolution on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program exclude crippling sanctions.
Moscow has rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues. It has continued to arm the regime of Syria's vicious dictator and blocked multilateral efforts to stop the ongoing carnage there. Across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America's national security. For three years, the sum total of President Obama's policy toward Russia has been: "We give, Russia gets."
Russian intransigence has elicited no push-back from the White House. Indeed, as the conversation in South Korea shows, President Obama appears determined to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin. This, unfortunately, seems to be the real meaning of his "reset" policy. An outstanding example is the personal phone call that Barack Obama made to Vladimir Putin from Air Force One congratulating the Russian leader on his election as Russia's next president.
The call followed a declaration from the State Department that "the United States congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the Presidential elections." Given that the Russian elections were widely seen to have been compromised by fraud and intimidation, these words made a mockery of America's commitment to democracy and human rights. They undercut all those in Russia who are risking so much to struggle for the universal rights that we ourselves enjoy. They are a shameful betrayal of our country's first principles.
President Obama's conversation with Dmitry Medvedev raises questions not only about his policy toward Russia, but his entire foreign policy.
Would post-election "flexibility" lead him to reach out once again to the Iranian regime "without preconditions"? Would it lead him to resume pressuring Israel into making unilateral concessions to the Palestinians? Would it permit him to take an even softer line, if that is imaginable, toward the authoritarian regimes of the Castro brothers and Hugo Chávez? Would he further shrink our Navy and Air Force below the already-too-low force numbers currently planned? Would he pour more money into United Nations bodies that have recognized a Palestinian state and seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy denouncing Israel?
In a self-governing country like ours, the people have a right to know what kinds of decisions are being taken in their name. The American people deserve candor. They also deserve a foreign policy founded upon our enduring principles and a recognition of our exceptional place in the world.
That is not what they are getting now. Unfortunately, what they are getting is a sad replay of Jimmy Carter's bungling at a moment when the United States needs the backbone and courage of a Ronald Reagan. In his dealings with the Kremlin, as in his dealings with the rest of the world, President Obama has demonstrated breathtaking weakness -- and given the word "flexibility" a new and ominous meaning.