Mitt Romney took a swipe at President Obama in Monday's foreign policy debate, invoking an infamous aside to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that was caught on a live microphone.
"This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility," Obama told Medvedev when the pair met in Seoul in March to discuss plans by the U.S. and NATO for an anti-ballistic shield with participation by Romania, Poland and Turkey. Moscow was adamantly opposed to the shield.
Obama urged Moscow to give him "space" until after the November ballot. Medvedev dutifully pledged to relay the message to then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was in the process of switching jobs with Medvedev, but who is seen as the real power in Russia.
At the time, Romney called the whispered exchange "alarming and troubling." And at the debate in Boca Raton, Fla., the GOP nominee raised it again after reiterating a past stance that Russia poses the greatest "geopolitical threat" to the U.S.
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“I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin, and I’m certainly not going to say to him, ‘I’ll give you more flexibility after the election,’” Romney said. “After the election, he’ll get more backbone.”
Obama's open-mic slip came as U.S. plans for an anti-missile shield raised tensions between Washington and Moscow despite Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vow to "reset" ties between the former Cold War foes. The exchange, picked up by a White House pool of television journalists as well as Russian reporters, followed Obama's plea for "space," and went like this:
"I understand your message about space," replied Medvedev.
"This is my last election ... After my election I have more flexibility," Obama said, apparently confident of winning re-election.
"I will transmit this information to Vladimir," said Medvedev.
The White House was initially caught off-guard when reporters asked about the exchange, but later released a statement recommitting to implementing missile defense "which we've repeatedly said is not aimed at Russia" but also acknowledging election-year obstacles on the issue.
"Since 2012 is an election year in both countries, with an election and leadership transition in Russia and an election in the United States, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said at the time. "Therefore, President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile defense cooperation going forward," he said.