National security and foreign policy have received short shrift in the 2012 presidential-election campaign. Mitt Romney made a quick swing through Britain, Israel, and Poland to suggest he would repair strained relations with America's closest allies. President Obama has repeatedly reminded voters that he gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden. That's about it.
For the most part, each campaign has sung a single note: Romney has tried to convince voters he can fix the broken economy. Obama has tried to convince voters that Romney is a heartless, plutocratic tax cheat and, possibly, a murderer to boot.
Consequential international issues should be part of the debate. Among them: In Seoul on March 26, Obama was caught on tape assuring then-Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's factotum, that he would have "more flexibility" after the U.S. presidential election. He stressed that this would be "my last election" — implying that once that chore was out of the way he would no longer need to worry about voters and what they think.
What was Obama promising to be more flexible about? The microphone picked up the phrase "these issues — but particularly missile defense." Putin, of course, has long insisted that the U.S. leave itself permanently vulnerable to a Russian missile attack, that the U.S. not utilize its cutting-edge technology to protect people and property from offensive missiles that might be fired by Russians.
Even good reporters persistently get this wrong. They talk about Putin's "fears" that American missile defenses would be "aimed" at Russia. But American missile defenses can be aimed at only one thing: missiles targeting America or America's allies. You aim a spear; you don't aim a shield.
There are Americans who agree with Putin, arguing that the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked well and should be maintained. On the other side are those who contend that we now have the technological know-how to prevent offensive missiles fired by any nation from reaching their intended victims, and that we should put this knowledge to use — for both strategic and moral reasons.
This is a hugely consequential policy choice — all the more so following the revelation this week that a nuclear-powered Russian attack submarine recently operated undetected in the Gulf of Mexico. About the same time, a Russian strategic bomber flew into U.S. airspace near California, where it was met by U.S. interceptor jets. And recall that, in May, General Nikolai Makarov warned that Russian forces might consider preemptive attacks on U.S. and allied missile defenses in Europe. Shouldn't Obama and Romney at least be talking about such matters?
Medvedev, at the time of the March exchange, two months away from amiably returning the Russian presidency to Putin, told Obama: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir and I stand with you." Medvedev stands with Obama? How should we interpret that?
The major media didn't really try. The New York Times described the conversation as a "private moment of political candor." Reuters called it an "unusually frank exchange."
Few journalists asked for more information, and those who did seemed satisfied with boilerplate responses such as that delivered by White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes: "I think as you saw from their remarks, there was a very positive tone. . . . President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile defense cooperation going forward."
As for Romney, he said he found all this "alarming and troubling," adding: "This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people."
I'm not even sure what that means. It certainly avoids the most disturbing questions. Among them: Is it acceptable for an American president to promise to accommodate despots on vital matters of national security, cutting the American people out of the discussion?
Several of Romney's foreign-policy advisers did send Obama an open letter, but it contained a laundry list of complaints — which served to blur rather than sharpen the focus. Since then, neither Romney nor the super PACs supporting him have given much attention to the Obama/Medvedev exchange. There is one ad, available on YouTube only, not broadcast on TV, that makes light of the affair, showing the president as a James Bond/Austin Powers character assigned to a diabolical mission.
Senior political operatives have told me that to air a serious commercial with enough repetition to have a chance of engaging independent voters — even just in swing states — would cost no less than $8 million, funds Romney's advisers think it unwise to divert from the economic issues weighing most heavily on voters' minds.
Maybe so. But politics aside, election campaigns are meant to be great battles of ideas. Surely decisions about the strategy for defending American lives are worth a speech or two. One also has to wonder: If, a year or so from now, Americans learn what Obama was telling the Kremlin and don't like it, will they ask why no one — not the "watchdogs" in the major media, their representatives in Congress, or even the president's opponent — made a serious effort to warn them?