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In his 2011 State of the Union Address, with six members of the Supreme Court present, President Obama famously attacked the Court’s Citizen’s United decision.
At the center of Obama’s criticism was his completely erroneous contention that the decision opened the floodgates to foreign corporate spending in U.S. election campaigns.
“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign companies — to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people,” Obama said.
In fact, Citizen’s United correctly held that prohibitions against union and corporate speech concerning candidates for federal office were invalid under the First Amendment. It did not invalidate statutes that continue to prohibit foreign contributions in election campaigns.
So, it is more than striking that a president who used his most important annual address to warn against foreign influences in our elections has been caught doing precisely what he warned against, in what he thought was a private chat with a foreign leader.
“When diplomats attempt to distance themselves from their negotiating instructions, they directly undercut the official American position.” — John Bolton
Obama pleaded with outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and, by implication, Vladimir Putin — soon to be inaugurated again in Moscow — to give him “space” until after the November U.S. election, at which point Obama could be more “flexible.”
While the context of the discussion was the possibility of even more gratuitous U.S. concessions on missile defense, Obama himself made it clear to Medvedev that the range of issues where he was signaling further retreat was far broader.
Medvedev wasted no time creating “space” for Obama by criticizing Mitt Romney, the almost-certain Republican presidential nominee.
Medvedev complained that Romney’s assessment of the threats posed by Russia “smells of Hollywood,” and suggested that Romney “look at his watch: We are in 2012 and not the mid-1970s.”
These comments obviously express Medvedev’s — and Putin’s — preference for dealing with Obama, and his concern that a President Romney would not be as pliable as the current incumbent.
Although the White House tried to downplay the significance of the Obama-Medvedev exchange, they have not succeeded, and should not.
Obama was candidly admitting to a foreign ruler that his vision of dramatically reduced U.S. global strength could not withstand the red-hot scrutiny of a U.S. political campaign.
In fact, Obama was running fast and furiously from what another famous Supreme Court decision, New York Times v. Sullivan, celebrated as America’s constitutional commitment to “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate on public issues.
Needless to say, Medvedev and Putin could well understand and sympathize with Obama’s concerns; they have hardly shown any interest in that kind of debate in their own country.
But on all issues, and especially grave and profound issues of U.S. national security, what better time is there for our fellow citizens to ask what our prospective leaders believe? If a candidate isn’t willing to take a public stand when he is seeking the most powerful governmental office in the world, when exactly are mere voters going to learn what his thinking is?
As a matter of negotiation, moreover, the exchange with Medvedev shows Obama at his worst, promising unilateral concessions to come. One can reasonably ask, is this the first time in three-and-a-half years that he has taken such a foolish approach, or has this been typical of a naive, inexperienced and ultimately, from the perspective of U.S. national interests, highly dangerous negotiation style?
Obama is not the first to make this mistake, of course, but our prior experience with trying to curry favor with great powers with different interests from ours has not been favorable.
When diplomats attempt to distance themselves from their negotiating instructions in an effort to gain favor for themselves, as they too often do, by saying their personal positions are different from the Washington view, they directly undercut the official American position.
But when an American president in effect does this, the ramifications extend well beyond any particular incident. If the open microphone had not picked up the leaders’ discussion for the entire world to hear, Medvedev would doubtless have delighted in telling the story privately to the likes of leaders from Russia’s close friends like Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
That is how the toxic effect spreads, to America’s detriment.
American voters should ask Obama: What was it you wanted to share privately with Medvedev that you weren’t willing to share openly with us? Is there something about us that makes us untrustworthy? Or is there something about your agenda in a second term, Mr. President, which makes you unworthy of our trust?
John Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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