SEOUL -- U.S. politics combined with diplomacy as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama pointed to an uncooperative Congress to explain why he was delaying negotiations with Russian leaders over missile defense.
Romney, in a CNN interview Monday, had referred to Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” prompting Medvedev to tell reporters here that the former Massachusetts governor’s language seemed out of date and “smelled of Hollywood” stereotypes.
“Regarding ideological cliches, every time this or that side uses phrases like ‘enemy No. 1,’ this always alarms me,” Medvedev said Tuesday in remarks broadcast on Russian television.
“All U.S. presidential candidates [should] do two things,” he said. “Use their head and consult their reason” and “look at his watch: We are in 2012 and not the mid-1970s.”
The back-and-forth was prompted by an open-microphone incident Monday in which Obama could be heard telling Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” after the presidential election in November to consider Russian concerns about U.S. missile defense plans.
“This is my last election,” Obama said. “After my election I have more flexibility.”
“I understand,” Medvedev responded. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” he added, referring to Vladimir Putin, who won Russia’s election on March 4 and will begin a six-year term as president in May.
Republicans quickly pounced on that exchange, calling it evidence that Obama, if reelected, would go soft on national security issues. Romney was highly critical, saying in the CNN interview that “Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage. And for this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn't have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia, is very, very troubling, very alarming.”
Obama returned fire on Tuesday, telling reporters as he wrapped up a three-day diplomatic tour in Seoul that he had merely been realistic about the problems of dealing with a Congress partly controlled by Republicans.
“The only way I get this stuff done is if I'm consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I've got bipartisan support,” Obama said of the missile defense negotiations. “And frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.”
Democrats privately labeled Romney’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” remark as reckless, seeing it as a comment they can use to portray the likely Republican presidential nominee as out of touch.
The domestic controversy largely overshadowed the purpose of Obama’s trip, a nuclear security summit where more than 50 world leaders agreed to take modest steps to better secure fissile material within their borders. Experts looking for a permanent process for standardizing the way nations store, guard or transport their nuclear material said the summit had helped raise the profile of an important issue. But they said the progress, while notable, was limited.
“I don’t think a lot of hearts are twittering,” said Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “It’s pretty underwhelming.” Another summit on the issue, part of Obama's 2009 goal of securing all vulnerable material, is slated for 2014.
In the days leading up to and during the summit, Ukraine announced it had removed all the highly enriched uranium from its borders and Sweden said it had completed the transport of its small cache of plutonium for storage in the United States. The U.S. agreed to fund efforts to improve tracking of potential smuggling. Obama and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced progress on an effort to clean up and remove nuclear material from a former Soviet testing ground in the Central Asian country.
Before leaving South Korea to return to Washington, Obama met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, hoping to ease tensions that have hampered the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama came away from the session with an understanding of the debates in Pakistan’s parliament over relations with the United States. Obama told Gilani that he believed Pakistan “has a constructive role to play” in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan, Rhodes said.
-- Kathleen Hennessey
Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks at a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday. Credit: Ekaterina Shtukina / Ria Novosti / Kremlin pool