It used to be that journalists had a monopoly on blunt talk about U.S.-Russian relations.
Since we are not diplomats, we don’t have to be diplomatic.
Then missile defense flared this week as the burning issue between Washington and Moscow.
On Monday, an open microphone in Seoul caught U.S. President Barack Obama asking Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev for more "space" on missile defense. The American leader said he would have more "flexibility" after the Nov. 6, U.S. election.
In response, Mitt Romney, the leading Republican contender, told CNN that Russia is America’s "number one foe." Then, President Medvedev retorted that that phrase "smells of Hollywood." He suggested the American candidate "check his watch," as "it’s 2012, not the mid-1970s."
The next day, Romney fired back on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, with a piece titled: "Bowing to the Kremlin." Romney accused President Obama of being "pliant" on missile defense. He summarized the Obama Administration’s policy as: "We give, Russia gets."
In the middle of all this, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s top arms control official, landed in Moscow on Wednesday. She told the Kommersant newspaper that a mutually acceptable solution can be found on missile defense.
That solution most likely will not be found during the American presidential campaign season, a time long called "the silly season" for the claims and charges made by candidates.
While the politicians try to score points, here are a few things they won’t say about Washington’s plan to build a missile defense picket line to knock one or two missiles coming from Iran.
First, Eastern Europeans generally like missile defense — not because they fear an Iranian missile, but because it places an American human trip wire between them and Russia. South Korea has flourished for almost 60 years, partly because of the thousands of American soldiers stationed between Seoul and the DMZ.
In North Korea, three generations of the ruling Kim dynasty have known that if they follow through on threats to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire," the resulting American casualties would enrage the American public and force Washington to intervene. Everyone in South Korea knows this realpolitik. In the U.S., few do.
Generations of U.S. Army recruiters have enticed 18 years olds into military with slogans like "See the World!" They don’t try to entice with a slogan like "Be a Human Tripwire!"
Many Eastern Europeans who know their history would like to have American boots on their ground, even it is just for a radar station or a missile picket line.
Second, unless I am hard of hearing, I hear no calls from Western Europe for defense from Iranian rockets.
My hearing may have dulled when, as a teenager, I attended mass marches in France against the Vietnam War. When 100,000 French people march through the narrow streets of a university town, they raise a huge racket.
In contrast, today I hear only tiny Western European voices speaking for missile defense: from conservative thinks tanks and from Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister.
As NATO’s secretary general, he depends on good relations with the Pentagon for his job security. On Monday, in a video linkup from NATO headquarters in Brussels, he told Moscow: "The anti-missile shield is not directed against Russia, nor designed to attack Russia or undermine what Russia calls its strategic deterrent."
Responding to President Medvedev’s threat to deploy nuclear tipped missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost territory, he added: "It would be a complete waste of money to deploy offensive weapons against an artificial enemy – an enemy that doesn’t exist in the real world."
From the Russian side, President Medevedev told a Euro-Atlantic security conference here in Moscow last week: "To be honest, during sideline talks, many of the European leaders would tell me in a whisper that they really do not need this, but they have obligations, given the Atlantic solidarity."
On one level, that is Moscow’s age old game of trying to split Europe from the United States. But, I have yet to see – or hear — Western Europeans marching in the streets, demanding missile defense.
The third point here is that Russia fears missile defense because it wants to preserve the nuclear status quo inherited from the Soviet Union – Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD.
Russia believes that if missile defense is allowed out of the box, a small, pilot program will eventually grow to be a monster that nullifies Russia’s fearsome nuclear arsenal.
Russia’s leadership does not want to repeat the costly arms race that helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.
According to a World Bank study on Russia’s economy released Tuesday, oil prices have to stay above $115 a barrel for Russia’s governmental budget to balance. That is four times the $30 level that balances the budget five years ago.
Russia’s other insecurity is that it fears it cannot keep up with the science. As corruption and a scientific brain drain undermine the quality of Russian universities, no Russian institution ranked last week in a world survey of the world’s top 100 universities.
Russia’s roughly 3,000 active nuclear warheads give the Kremlin a seat at most big power tables. If a missile defense system were to ever neutralize this threat, Russia would end up looking like a poorly run Canada, a supplier of raw materials to Europe and China.
To guard against such a sad, but faraway, fate, President Medvedev told the security meeting here last week: "The main thing is that we must hear one simple thing – hear it and receive confirmation: ‘Respected friends from Russia, our missile defense is not aimed against Russian nuclear forces.’ This must be affirmed, not in a friendly chat over a cup of tea or a glass of wine but in a document."
But, on the American side, that is not going to happen. The last Republican president, George W. Bush, pulled the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002. He pulled the U.S. out precisely to allow American scientists to work on a missile defense program to protect the U.S. and its allies against a nuclear tipped missile, from North Korea or Iran.
Last year, U.S. Senate specifically banned sharing of confidential missile defense data with Russia. On Tuesday, 43 out of the 47 Republican Senators in Washington signed a letter to President Obama opposing any attempt to limit U.S. missile defense capabilities.
To many American conservatives, it would irresponsible for America’s leadership to not invest in a technology that could potentially save millions of lives. Republicans say that Democrats deride missile defense as "Star Wars’ technology" and that Democrats only keep the program alive in order to be able to sacrifice it as a bargaining chip in a deal with Russia.
Perhaps alarmed at this week’s surge in Republican opposition, Sergei Koshelev, Russia’s top liaison with NATO, invited Rasmussen on Wednesday to Moscow for a May 3 missile defense meeting. Referring to NATO’s 28 members, he soothingly told Interfax: "We are telling them: ‘do everything you think necessary, but not to the detriment of Russia’s security.’"
Until the U.S. presidential election is over, Russian and American negotiators are expected to grapple behind closed doors with the missile defense Rubik’s Cube.
Maybe the best solution came Friday from Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin.
First, he attended Euro-Atlantic security conference where he denounced Washington’s anti-Iran missile defense system, saying: "The system that is being developed is intended to intercept heavy intercontinental missiles blasting off from the Russian territory."
Then, he drove 45 kilometer north to Moscow’s Institute of Thermal Technology. There, he posed with the developers of Russia’s Bulava, Yars and Topol-M strategic missile systems.
Talking to reporters, he said Russians can remain calm.
"The advanced Russian missile systems that are being developed today guarantee the ability to overpower any existing and future missile defense shields," Rogozin said.
So this may be the face saving way exit.
After creating a pretend problem, the Kremlin can now create a pretend solution.