Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently presented a gift to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to mark a new Obama era in US-Russia relations. The gift was a fake red push-button with the Russian word for “reset” printed on it, as if to suggest that it is time to “reset” relations between the two nations after testy times under Bush.
Unfortunately, the Russian word printed on the button was translated as “overcharge.” And while this is another seemingly lighthearted gaffe in the Obama administration’s stumbling foray onto the national and world stage, it really looks like another manifestation of incompetence.
Clinton laughed off the mixup. Yet if such a thing had happened under Bush, the media would never get over it. CNN, meanwhile, used the word “reset” in its coverage of Clinton’s meeting as if to suggest that the translation snafu is no big deal.
But it is a big deal. Because Obama is sending confusing signals in both domestic and foreign policy, and his recent letter to Russian president Dmitri Medvdev is a sterling example. In it Obama suggested that the United States would consider halting deployment of a new missile defense shield in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them.
The shield would place 10 defensive interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. The US position has been that the defenses would guard against launches on Europe from Iran or North Korea, and would not be a shield against Russia.
Russia, however, sees things differently. It has strongly opposed the defensive system – originally proposed by Bush – saying that it was an American/European presence in its back yard, and that it provocatively would upset the balance of power between Russia and the strongly pro-American Eastern European bloc.
Russia also feels threatened that former Soviet client states including Poland, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Georgia and Ukraine all have become, or seem to be in the process of becoming more strongly allied with the US primarily through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO.
The recent decision by Russian neighbor Kyrgyzstan to eject Americans from an air base there that was used to supply US interests in Afghanistan is seen as yet another step in Moscow’s ratcheting up of pressure against the US.
The private Obama letter was said to be intended to give Moscow an incentive to join the United States in containing Iran which has strong commercial and diplomatic ties with Russia. But Russia has opposed America’s strong stance against Iran. That stance, however, is prompted in large part by Iranian threats against American ally Israel since Israel is within closest range of any intermediate-range missiles that might be developed by Iran. Meanwhile the Iranian leadership has talked repeatedly about wiping Israel off the face of the earth.
Obama has insisted that he sought no quid pro quo with Moscow on Iran. And like many liberals, he has claimed that the interceptors aren’t perfected and therefore that perhaps they shouldn’t be deployed anyway, so that the deal may be a win-win for the US. He then defended the offer, saying, “What I said in the letter is the same thing I’ve said publicly, which is that the missile defense that we have talked about deploying is directed towards not Russia, but Iran.”
“That has always been the concern – that you have potentially a missile from Iran that threatened either the United States or Europe.”
Russia, however, is acting in its own hardball interest, which never seems to be the same as European, US or world interest. It has responded to the defense plan by threatening to deploy offensive Iskander missiles pointed at Poland to “neutralize” any US missile shield plans. This type of confrontational behavior is why the Poles favor the shield in the first place and why, to them, it is Russia that should be #1 on the bad-state list.
Medvdev said: “We hope that the new president of the United States will be a successful president, who will be capable of building the correct image for his country in both internal and foreign affairs. A president who can build a strong base in relations between Russia and the United States.”
Moscow even had proposed to the Bush administration that any shield be placed partially in Russia to allow Russian control. Bush rejected that idea. It is said that the Obama administration may be considering the same idea. Meanwhile Iran is insisting that its nuclear program is for civilian power and does not breach any nuclear non-proliferation treaties.
Medvdev’s belligerent threat to deploy the Iskanders brings up memories of the Pershing missile quarrel of the 1980s that brought millions into the streets of Europe in protest. At that time, the Soviets already were pointing nuclear-tipped SS-20 missiles at Europe. America wanted to upgrade its Pershing missiles in Europe that were pointed at the Soviets. Europeans feared that if America proceeded with the Pershing upgrade that the danger level would be raised since Ronald Reagan held that the West needed to confront Soviet power, not acquiesce to it.
Ultimately the protests failed and Euro leaders took the Pershings in a show of solidarity against the then-Soviet Union. Now Medvdev may be seeking a belated consolation in the current showdown, and to re-establish Russian prestige in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union and repeated Russian humiliation in world affairs.
Perhaps the red button that Mrs. Clinton gave to Lavrov was prophetic. Perhaps Obama is planning to “overcharge” American security in cutting this type of deal with Russia and exposing American willingness to acquiesce to Russian power and not to confront it, albeit in much less dire circumstances that the 1980s.
It is well known that former Russian president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin still is the power behind Medvdev, and that Putin probably was behind the inflammatory Russian invasion of South Ossetia (Georgia) last summer and behind Medvdev’s Iskander threat. Putin is playing hardball and knows he has a soft target in Obama.
In his recent meetings with British prime minister Gordon Brown, Obama was called rude and inconsiderate for not extending all of the courtesies that British leaders have traditionally been extended over the years as our closest ally in the world. By engaging Medvdev, Putin and their increasingly dogmatic cabal while snubbing Britain, Obama is showing his willingness to accommodate a meddlesome, confrontational and provocative power at the expense of a cohesive democratic front, including our good friends in Eastern Europe. And this is yet another questionable turn in the foreign policy of our nation for which Obama must be held to account.
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