Uproar over Obama's open mic comments on missile defence


THE UPROAR over US president Barack Obama’s comments to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, regarding the US missile defence programme continued into a second day yesterday, even as Mr Obama sought to explain himself and Mr Medvedev mocked Mr Obama’s Republican opponents.

As Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev were sitting down to a press conference with journalists in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, Mr Obama whispered to Mr Medvedev, he believed in confidence. “On all these issues, particularly missile defence, this can be solved, but it’s important for [Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin] to give me space,” Mr Obama said, according to a reporter for ABC News who overheard the exchange. Mr Medvedev said he understood.

Unknown to Mr Obama, a television microphone picked up the rest of the exchange, which went viral on the internet and was widely broadcast in the US.

“This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” Mr Obama said.

“I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Mr Medvedev responded.

It did not matter that Mr Obama confided to a foreign leader that he believes he will be re-elected. But the use of the word “flexibility” was seized upon by the president’s Republican opponents as proof that he will change policies once he has dispensed with the popular vote.

Just as Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney labours under the suspicion that he is a moderate running as a conservative, Mr Obama is accused of being a liberal running as a moderate.

Mr Obama’s careless remarks are portrayed as the equivalent of a gaffe by Mr Romney’s adviser Eric Fehrnstrom last week, albeit more damaging because they came from the candidate himself.

Senator John McCain called Mr Obama “a real Etch-a-Sketch leader”, referring to Mr Fehrnstrom’s statement that Mr Romney would simply erase his policies and start over once he secured the nomination.

The Republican national committee released a video asking: “What else is on Obama’s agenda after the election that he isn’t telling you?”

Mr Romney said: “President Obama signalled that he’s going to cave to Russia on missile defence, but the American people have a right to know where else he plans to be ‘flexible’ in a second term.”

Mr Romney’s foreign policy advisers yesterday addressed a scathing open letter to Mr Obama.

“We live in a dangerous world. American strength and American constancy are critical to the preservation of peace. Too often, the US under your leadership has been neither strong nor constant,” three-dozen hawkish foreign policy experts wrote, among them former UN ambassador John Bolton and Robert Kagan, whom Mr Obama has praised.

“Your inadvertently recorded remarks to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in South Korea raise questions about whether a new period of even greater weakness and inconstancy would lie ahead if you were re-elected,” the letter continued. “What do you mean by ‘flexibility?’ Flexibility to do what?”

The letter noted that Mr Obama had already abandoned planned missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and cast doubt on his intentions regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Afghanistan and other foreign and defence issues.

On the final day of a nuclear security summit in Seoul yesterday, Mr Obama made a joke of the incident by putting his hand over the microphone and saying, “Wait, wait, wait”, when he greeted Mr Medvedev.

“I think everybody understands – if they don’t, they haven’t been listening to my speeches – that I want to reduce nuclear stockpiles,” Mr Obama said. “And one of the barriers to doing that is building trust and co-operation around missile defence issues. And so this is not a matter of hiding the ball.”

Mr Medvedev mocked Mr Romney’s characterisation of Russia as, “without question, our number-one geopolitical foe”, saying it “smacks of Hollywood”.