There is so much constant, loud clatter in politics that often it is difficult to separate that which is important and revealing from that which is just noise. But President Obama said something important and revealing on Monday in South Korea. The White House tried to laugh off his comments at first and then to explain them away. But the implications are too serious for political spin.
Mr. Obama was talking with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when neither of them realized that their conversation was being picked up by microphones. Here is what they said:
Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space.”
Medvedev: “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you …”
Obama: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
“This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” That statement tells us much about the president’s mindset.
The specific mention of missile defense is worrisome enough. Mr. Obama has retreated from the missile defense plan that was negotiated with European allies during the George W. Bush administration. Apparently, he is signaling Moscow that he intends to retreat further. The clear implication from the president’s comments is that he cannot tell the American people before the election what he plans to do after the election.
In addition, there is the phrase “on all these issues,” implying more is at stake than just missile defense.
For example, the White House has floated proposals for more deep cuts in our nuclear deterrent - as much as 80 percent. In mid-February, I had the chance to ask Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey about these trial balloons. I told them that such talk does nothing but encourage our enemies to pursue nuclear weapons and discourage our friends from believing they can count on our nuclear deterrent. The result is a more dangerous world with more nuclear-weapons programs spread across it.
“More flexibility” without having to answer to voters again may well mean cuts in nuclear weapons and capability that will end the peace-through-strength approach pursued by both parties for more than 50 years. In addition, “more flexibility” in an attempt to please Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin also could include a host of other measures that weaken the United States and reduce the confidence other nations have in us.
Finally, the president, his advisers and his supporters often say he is committed to “restoring American leadership abroad.” Sure, leaders can be flexible, but when it comes to keeping their country and its citizens safe, they must be firm. These comments overheard in Seoul show that the only thing to which the president is really committed right now is his own re-election.
Mr. Obama seems anxious to be unshackled from the American voters so he can do what he thinks is best for all of us without having to be accountable for it. His comments are revealing - and deeply disturbing. Undoubtedly, they should be an important turning point for those who may be unsure of his leadership and the direction in which he seeks to take our country now and in the future.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.