Obama’s Foreign Policy Etch-a-Sketch

For a change, President Obama and not one the Republican contenders to replace him has gotten into trouble for accidentally speaking the truth.

For a change, President Obama and not one the Republican contenders to replace him has gotten into trouble for accidentally speaking the truth.

Jake Tapper, ABC News (“President Obama Asks Medvedev for ‘Space’ on Missile Defense — ‘After My Election I Have More Flexibility’“):

At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”

The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.

The exchange:

President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

When asked to explain what President Obama meant, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes told ABC News that there is room for the U.S. and Russia to reach an accommodation, but “there is a lot of rhetoric around this issue — there always is — in both countries.

A senior administration official tells ABC News: “this is a political year in which the Russians just had an election, we’re about to have a presidential and congressional elections — this is not the kind of year in which we’re going to resolve incredibly complicated issue like this. So there’s an advantage to pulling back and letting the technical experts work on this as the president has been saying.”

Max Fischer summarizes the predictable reaction: “Obama caught on a hot mic saying the elections limit his foreign policy. Everyone knows it’s true. Big scandal anyway.” He adds, “Here comes the part where everyone pretends to be outraged that, in democracies, elected leaders are influenced by public opinion.”

To me, this is little different from last week’s controversy caused by a Romney staffer referencing an “Etch-a-Sketch,” noting that the conversation essentially starts from scratch once it becomes one with the wider American electorate and not just committed Republican partisans. Romney’s not going to completely overhaul his positions for the fall; he is simply going to hone in on the issues where the contrast with the president is most advantageous in persuading swing voters. Similarly, if reelected, the president isn’t going to do a complete 180 on missile defense–but he’d have more breathing room without having to make policy under a campaign microscope. That’s just reality.

There’s a quaint notion that politicians, especially would-be presidents, should arrive on the scene with fully formed policy positions that are set in stone. Not only is that seldom the case aside from a handful of the most visceral issues, it’s not at all clear why it would be a good thing if it were otherwise. Leaders, especially in democracies, actually ought care about what the population thinks.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, National Security, US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    To me, this is little different from last week’s controversy caused by a Romney staffer referencing an “Etch-a-Sketch,”

    Grasping at straws here JJ?

  2. Jenos Idanian says:

    But the important question here is unanswered: does Russia “punch above its weight class?”

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Max Fischer is correct.
    You, however, are comparing apples and orangutans.

    “…Romney’s not going to completely overhaul his positions for the fall…”

    Based on what James? He has overhauled many of his positions since he was Governor. This is well documented. How can you predict with any certainty what he will do in the future? I understand that you will most likely vote for him. That should not cloud your analysis.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    “…“I think people recognize that I’m not a partisan Republican. That I’m someone who is moderate and that my views are progressive and that I’m going to go to work for our senior citizens, for people who have been left behind by urban schools that are not doing the right job. And so they’re going to vote for me regardless of the party label…”

    “I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor.”

  5. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Hey Norm: Odd, how you choose to defend Obama by attacking Romney… you’re not saying that Obama’s good, but that Romney’s so bad.

  6. Console says:

    Romney’s problem comes from the fact that it reinforces the negative stereotypes of his political caricature. The fact it fits a narrative is what makes it stick out so much. Things like this remind me of why I try to stay away from horse-race BS as much as possible, but the political narrative is all-powerful.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Console:

    Romney’s problem comes from the fact that it reinforces the negative stereotypes of his political caricature. The fact it fits a narrative is what makes it stick out so much.

    Precisely. This metaphor has legs because of Romney’s record. Funny to see JJ reviving this a few days after Doug published numerous diaries claiming it was an irrelevance. The fact is the metaphor has resonance when applied to Romney and none outside the minds of Republicans when it’s applied to Obama.

  8. SKI says:

    @Console:

    Romney’s problem comes from the fact that it reinforces the negative stereotypes of his political caricature.

    Exactly.

  9. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    I’m not too sure the upcoming election is all that limiting to Obama’s foreign policy goals. A large percentage of the people who’ll be voting for Obama wouldn’t know missile defense from a zone defense in a college basketball game. They’d also have a hard time finding Russia on a map of the world, even if you spotted them Poland.

    That aside, to my way of thinking this is a non-story. Obama doesn’t want to take the chance of offending any of the denizens of Zombieland with a big decision until after the first Tuesday in November. No problem. To be expected. Were I in charge I’d take the same approach.

  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    So the takeaway from this hot mic moment is that our pragmatically center-left president is behaving in a pragmatically center-left way. And that is a bad thing….?

  11. Hey Norm says:

    Actually Jenos…
    As i said in my comment…Max Fischer is correct:
    “…“Obama caught on a hot mic saying the elections limit his foreign policy. Everyone knows it’s true. Big scandal anyway…”
    Obama needs no defending on this. Even the Administration Officials didn’t try to defend it.
    My comment was regarding James’ comparison, which is not appropriate. Hence the term apples and orangutans.

  12. Gustopher says:

    I think there’s a difference between pragmatism and lack of principles.

    Kicking the can down the road so missile defense doesn’t become an election issue, along with the Republicans committing to opposing anything Obama says, and returning to the rhetoric of The Evil Empire, is pragmatism. It keeps the options open for whoever is President in 2013.

    Taking whatever positions will be helpful at the moment and trusting the voter to not remember six months later…. That’s a complete lack of principles. The only thing that I know from Romney’s entire political career, is that he’d like to be President. What he would do if he became President, I have no idea.

  13. Hey Norm says:

    “…Obama doesn’t want to take the chance of offending any of the denizens of Zombieland…”

    Because as Gustopher points out…the denizens are commited to opposing anything Obama says.

  14. Franklin says:

    One could argue that this does fit the Republican narrative of Obama. He’s a commie and he’s going to work with the commies when he can get away with it. Oh, and he’s arrogant that he’ll win the election. So he’s an arrogant commie, just like they said (sorry, can’t figure out a way this makes him more Muslim).

  15. An Interested Party says:

    A large percentage of the people who’ll be voting for Obama wouldn’t know missile defense from a zone defense in a college basketball game. They’d also have a hard time finding Russia on a map of the world, even if you spotted them Poland.

    Considering the ridiculous things you write here on a regular basis, you are are hardly the person to be judging anyone else’s knowledge…

  16. anjin-san says:

    To me, this is little different from last week’s controversy caused by a Romney staffer referencing an “Etch-a-Sketch,”

    So you don’t see the difference between pragmatism & realpolitik in a sitting head of state, and a man like Romney who appears to stand for nothing other than his own advancement, someone who wil tell anyone anything they want to hear to advance his own ambitions?

    Really?

  17. dennis says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II:

    “A large percentage of the people who’ll be voting for Obama wouldn’t know missile defense from a zone defense in a college basketball game.”

    Careful, TNII; your bigotry is showing again.

  18. Mike says:

    Like Franklin said…

    The Fox News message board (which are fairly entertaining from time to time) are littered with people who seem to think that Obama is “predicting his re-election”, further evidence of his “arrogant” demeanor. Arrogance that has resulted in Obamacare, misguided investment in renewable energy, socialism, etc.

    I see this as no problem for BO, as the only people who would react negatively to this statement are the right-wing nutjobs in the Republican party (who won’t vote for him anyway).

  19. Ben Wolf says:

    Obama’s agenda is as much dictated by political need as Romney’s campaign. I’m afraid I don’t see the controversy in that.

  20. anjin-san says:

    @ Dennis

    Careful, Tsar is a professional defense analyst this week.

  21. al-Ameda says:

    The analogy to an etch-a-sketch would be more apt if Obama said that he would change his mind completely after the election.

    All Obama did here was to acknowledge political and electoral reality.

  22. Chris Mez says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Cneter-left nothing, Well right of center is more like it.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    So you don’t see the difference between pragmatism & realpolitik in a sitting head of state, and a man like Romney who appears to stand for nothing other than his own advancement, someone who wil tell anyone anything they want to hear to advance his own ambitions?

    Really?

    To be fair, a lot of people are going to delude themselves to vote for Romney in November…

  24. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Chris Mez: …and Doug M. wonders why I don’t consider DKos my political home…

  25. FedSec says:

    @Chris Mez: I was going to vehemently disagree until I remembered his stance on the police state and civil liberties. Yes, right of center would be correct.

  26. Brummagem Joe says:

    After all as Romney pointed out today Russia is our number one enemy. Now reports are coming in that he’s clarifying that statement. See JJ this is what etch a sketch means.

  27. al-Ameda says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Romney, like John Kerry, just cannot help himself.

  28. Have a nice G.A. says:

    Obama must be bluffing them, he new the mic was on.

  29. Racehorse says:

    Evidently, it looks like there might possibly be some kind of backdoor deal going down after the election if Obama wins. We cannot risk further reduction of our nuclear arsenal. No deals with the Russians.

  30. Jed says:

    Guess I’m less interested in the hot mic moment than in the reasons for waiting. This would seem to be a great time for the administration to post a foreign policy win, but maybe there are some details in the proposed deal that the republican nominees can soundbite or demagogue.

    Any clues?

  31. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Racehorse: The US currently has more than 5,100 nuclear warheads at its disposal. We could reduce that number by 99 percent and still have enough to blow up the world pretty good.

  32. An Interested Party says:

    I guess the President has learned well from Mittens…

  33. WR says:

    @anjin-san: “Careful, Tsar is a professional defense analyst this week.”

    This week? He’s been a defense analyst for 17 years!

  34. anjin-san says:

    We cannot risk further reduction of our nuclear arsenal.

    One Ohio class sub with MIRVED ballistic nuclear missiles can pretty much destroy everything in Russia worth destroying. We have 14 of them. They are essentially invulnerable, the Russian navy can’t do a damn thing about them. And that’s just subs, we have a whole lot of nukes and a variety of delivery systems. We could get rid of everything but the subs and still more or less destroy the world.

    You should try getting your information from someplace besides Fox News and right wing rant sites.