Obama Administration Declines to Credit Missile Defense Shift for Positive Russia Results
Whether it’s intellectual honesty or another case of a liberal refusing to take his own side in an argument, yesterday at the United Nations, several senior Obama advisers flat-out refused to say that last week’s decision to refashion ballistic missile defense in Europe had anything to do with some comments from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Not only did Medvedev praise the recent negotiations for U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons reductions (“We are satisfied with the current pace of work”) but he said the international community “should send great signals” to Iran that it can’t acquire nuclear weapons, and even that “in some cases sanctions are inevitable,” which is beyond Russia’s typically cautious and equivocal position on the Iranian nuclear file.
So naturally reporters wanted to know what accounts for Medvedev’s shift. And since one of the conservative talking points on the missile defense decision is that it didn’t secure any concrete positive actions from the Russians — which isn’t totally true – speculation quickly turned to missile defense. Yet Michael McFaul, the Russia director at the National Security Council, wasn’t willing to go there. From the transcript of a briefing yesterday:
Q The only thing we see that’s changed is the missile thing, so that’s how we read it. And we’ve been told something else to read in –
MR. McFAUL: Well, I guess I would just say it’s bigger than that. I think it’s trying to develop a strategic relationship with Russia. It’s trying to say we have common interests that are not just this thing for that thing, but a bigger framework. It’s a lot of interests. Today was all about Iran, but in July, we spent a great deal of time about Afghanistan. And before nine months ago, we didn’t talk about Afghanistan as a common threat. Now we do. This one I think we’ve achieved that.
Uh, what? Try again:
Q Michael, are you denying completely that the shift in U.S. strategy on this missile defense actually did improve the climate for these kind of talks and may have –
MR. McFAUL: Let me be very clear as somebody who is in every single meeting on missile defense, from the lowest to the highest levels, the notion that we need to do what we did as a concession for Russia never was brought up. And I just defer — I refer you to Secretary Gates. There is nobody that could say it clearer than him. He said it — and when the historic — I know you’re looking at me like — but hold on, hold on. I’m getting to — okay. So we did that and we did our review because of the threat in Iran, and that is what we did. Is it the case that it changes the climate? I think that’s true, of course. But it’s not cause and effect I guess is what I’m trying to say. The causal arrow is the other way around for me.
Now, on the one hand, since the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to de-link the missile defense decision from anything concerning Russia, McFaul’s not really in a position to suddenly say, “Well, when we like the outcome, missile defense was responsible for it!” But on the other, McFaul treated the linkage like it was a cockroach running around his kitchen, and he did everything but take off his shoe and slam it repeatedly on the counter until the insect was nothing more than a stain. Maybe we’re not used to seeing that measure of intellectual honesty from someone who has to defend a controversial policy decision, but it’s one weird communications strategy.
For what it’s worth, here’s Medvedev on the administration’s missile defense shift:
We talked about missile defense with my colleague, President Obama. We talked that the decision that he took was reasonable and that reflected the position of the current U.S. administration on missile defense, and also takes into consideration our concerns on the missile defense which is needed for Europe and for the world. And we are ready to continue this work with our U.S. colleagues in this direction, as well as with our European colleagues, of course.