Obama defends hot-mic missile gaffe

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama is defending his hot-mic promise of post-election “flexibility” with Russia’s leaders as just another version of his public statements, and is blaming the media for slowing down a deal with Russia.

“We’re going to spend the next nine, 10 months trying to work through some of the technical aspects of how we get past what is… one of the primary points of friction between our two countries, which is this whole missile defense issue,” before focusing on another deal to cut nuclear weapons, Obama told reporters in Seoul, Korea.

That’s “a very simple point, and one that essentially I repeated when I spoke to you guys yesterday,” he complained to the reporters after the gaffe was highlighted by the media, and decried by top Republicans.

GOP advocates derided his claim. “If O was just stating the ‘obvious’ when he asked Russia for space until Flexibility Day, why did he need to whisper it??” tweeted Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush.

The gaffe came when Obama was overhead by reporters asking outgoing Russian president Dimitri Medvedev for time and “space” to get past the November election. Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” after the November elections, which critics have interpreted as a sign he may be willing to concede to Russian demands that the U.S. curb or cut its anti-missile defenses in Alaska and Europe.

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important … to give me space,” Obama told Medvedev as reporters entered the room to hear a joint statement.

“This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility,” Obama told the Russian president, who is soon to replaced by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

U.S. development of anti-missile technology has been decried by the Soviet Union and Russia since the 1960s, even though the Russians also have their own anti-missile weapons.

The complaints have slowed U.S. developments, but have also created bargaining chips for arms deals. In several deals in the 1970s and 1980s, the Russian governments dropped complaints about U.S. anti-missile programs in exchange for other benefits, such as the elimination of U.S. missiles based in Europe.

Polls since the 1980s have show that the U.S. public wants a missile defense system, although many Democrats have long opposed such defenses.

GOP-aligned defense experts worry that Obama will shut down U.S. defenses in Alaska and Europe in exchange for a symbolic and low-value cut in the number of deployed nuclear weapons.

Without extensive defenses, the U.S. and its European allies would be more exposed to missile attacks by lower-ranked powers, such as Iran, and more exposed to threats from Russia.

Obama’s overheard pitch to Medvedev spurred protests from GOP leaders and much negative media coverage. The controversy threatens to damage Obama’s campaign-trail claim that he is a strong advocate for the United States.

He’s “not telling us what he’s intending to do with regards to our missile defense system, with regards to our military might and with regards to our commitment to Israel,” declared Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I don’t see how any American could trust him ever again after that comment,” Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

Early Tuesday D.C.-time, Obama complained to reporters about their coverage of his hot-mic gaffe.

“I think everybody understands that — if they haven’t they haven’t been listening to my speeches — I want to reduce our nuclear stockpiles,” he said.

“This is not a matter of hiding the ball, I’m on record.  I made a speech about it to a whole bunch of Korean university students yesterday.  I want to see us, over time, gradually, systematically, reduce reliance on nuclear weapons,” he added.

But “the only way I get this stuff done is … if I’ve got bipartisan support [and] frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.” he said.

“I think the [media] stories you guys have been writing over the last 24 hours is probably pretty good evidence of that. I think we’ll do better in 2013.”

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