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 Barack 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 Dmitry 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 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 been adamant that the U.S. leave itself permanently vulnerable to a Russian missile attack, that the U.S. not use its cutting-edge technology to protect people and property from offensive missiles that might by 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 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, Gen. 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?
Romney told reporters he found it all "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?
Since then, neither Romney nor the Super PACs supporting him have given much attention to the Obama/Medvedev exchange.
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 at least $8 million, funds Romney's advisers think unwise to divert from the economic issues weighing most heavily on voters' minds.
Maybe. 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, not their representatives in Congress, and not even the president's opponent — made a serious effort to warn them?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism. Email: [email protected].