Few voters choose a president for his views on foreign policy, which is regarded as work best left to credulous wonks, artless dips and naive double-domes. It’s work in a place where real people don’t want to go.
Voters make occasional exceptions. George McGovern, who promised to “crawl on my knees” to Hanoi to end the Vietnam War, and Jimmy Carter, who bungled an attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran and left eight American troops dead in the desert, paid for their reckless goofiness as soon as the voters got a chance to bury them under landslides.
Barack Obama may soon join them in that pantheon to the gods of presidential screw-ups. He sent a message to Vladimir Putin begging for “space” with an implied promise to trash American missile defense later, after he achieves “flexibility” with the November election. That sounds like a promise to crawl on his knees to Moscow. Mr. Obama knows how to crawl. He earlier crawled to Cairo to deliver an apology for America being America, and offering something that sounded like a promise to make the Middle East safe for radical Islam.
“On all these issues, but particularly defense,” the president said in the confidential assurance to be relayed to Mr. Putin late last month in Seoul, “this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space. … This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Mr. Obama put his flacks and underlings in full panic mode, to explain that he hadn’t said what he said. He even tried to make a joke of it. Most Americans, unsophisticated rubes and uneducated rustics as we may seem to Mr. Obama’s wonks and wise men, never laugh at the idea of shortchanging the land we love. The president would understand this if he understood America.
When Mitt Romney pounced, demanding to know what concessions the president has in mind after the election for “our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president dispatched Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden to sweep up the broken glass. Who better than Hillary, who has more experience than anyone else listening to presidents caught with their mics open (or their pants down). She told Mr. Romney to be “more realistic” about the Russians. “I think it’s somewhat dated to be looking backwards instead of being realistic about where we agree, where we don’t agree.”
This sounds like something she heard from Bubba, ‘splainin’ smaller and more colorful sins in the White House. Good ol’ Joe Biden, roused from his nap in the attic, reminded Mitt Romney and the Republicans that the Cold War is over, that “this is not 1956. We have disagreements with Russia, but they’re united with us on Iran.”
If the Russians are our allies, we don’t need adversaries. If Hillary and ol’ Joe are telling it like they really think it is, we’ve got all the short attention spans Washington can accommodate. Down the memory hole go the Russian obstacles to sanctions on Iran that would really bite, Russian completion of the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr, shipment of Russian arms to Bashar Assad enabling him to slaughter Syrians, and the determined destruction of democracy within Russia.
Hillary, who not so long ago asked of the Russians, “Whose side are they on?” knows better than to believe most of the stuff she has to say. If a diplomat is someone paid to tell lies for his country, as the old diplomatic saying goes, a secretary of state is paid to tell the president’s whoppers.
The concession Vladimir Putin really wants — the concession that Mr. Obama thinks must wait until after the November election — is the dismantling of the nuclear missile shield. Ronald Reagan offered the Russians participation in the defensive shield decades ago, but got no taker. Moscow wants a legally binding pledge, whatever that could be, that the United States would never target Russia. Moscow would share control of the American shield.
This may be the concession that Mr. Obama has in mind for after the election. Nobody but the president knows, and he only talks to the Russians about it. He knows better than to tell us about it now. Survival is foreign policy so simple that rubes, rustics and even cavemen can understand it. This is the gift of gaffe that will keep on giving.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.