The Times: It was clever of President Obama to tell Russia’s leaders that US missile defence in Europe was intended to counter a threat from Iran.
Bronwen Maddox: Analysis
It was clever of President Obama to tell Russia’s leaders that US missile defence in Europe was intended to counter a threat from Iran. That puts the burden on Dimitri Medvedev, the President, and Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, to pitch in and try to persuade Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions.
You help with that and maybe we drop our missile shield plans — that was Obama’s barely coded offer. It would be a good deal for the US if the Russians take it: surrendering something that does not work yet and which the US only half wants to keep, but which Russian leaders really dislike.
In return, the US would get help with Iran, its biggest foreign worry.
Too good to be true, probably. That apart, the summit brought an odd package of remarks from the US President — some surprisingly provocative, others easily dismissed. He said that a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonising other countries. Perhaps he had Georgia in mind, but surely this is better directed at President Bush and his Axis of Evil, not to mention the Iraq war.
Obama also said that old assumptions that the US and Russia were antagonists vying for spheres of influence were wrong. Not completely wrong, surely. That is not how it looks to Georgia. Or those in many countries in Central Asia. Or, most to the point, to the Russian leaders.
Obama also added, directing his remarks at Russian students, that they had the privilege of determining what comes next. “You get to decide.” Eventually, maybe, but not now given the increasingly authoritarian hand of Putin and Medvedev.
That will be needling to the leadership duo, given the spectacle of the Iranian elections and the inspiring challenge that the younger generation has presented to the clerics. That is worth saying — as was his criticism of Russian corruption and suspicion of democracy — but not without cost.
Other remarks by Obama appeared to contradict US policy. He maintained that the future did not belong to those who gathered armies or planted missiles. But the US military is the anchor of Nato and has been the most active in the world in recent years.
By the standards, say, of his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, it was an off-hand and not particularly well-crafted set of remarks. It used the Cairo formula — a claim of common interests, a bit of self-criticism used to support a bit more criticism of the host — but with less subtlety about Russia itself. In itself that may have carried a message, and one that has been hinted at by his advisers in advance: that he can be bothered only so far with courting Russia before turning to bigger problems.
Given all that, Obama’s best pitch in Moscow was the narrow one on Iran: that Russia and the US share a clear interest in stopping it getting close to nuclear weapons capability, and that the US might be open to a trade on its missile defence if Russia gets on board quickly.
That is clear enough to be the foundation of a deal. The rest created as much opportunity for misunderstanding and irritation as it did to make peace.