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Leaving the Cold War Behind

By Dan Froomkin
1:10 PM ET, 04/ 1/2009


Obama and Medvedev meeting today. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev officially reset relations between their two countries today after eight years of increasing testiness and lack of cooperation.

Top of the new agenda: An agreement to quickly and dramatically reduce the number of long-range nuclear weapons on both sides, thousands of which remain on hair-trigger alert.

From the joint statement released by Obama and Medvedev after their meeting in London today, before tomorrow's G-20 talks:

"We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries. In just a few months we have worked hard to establish a new tone in our relations. Now it is time to get down to business and translate our warm words into actual achievements of benefit to Russia, the United States, and all those around the world interested in peace and prosperity....

"We agreed to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with a new, legally-binding treaty....

"We intend to carry out joint efforts to strengthen the international regime for nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery...

"We agreed that al-Qaida and other terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a common threat to many nations, including the United States and Russia. We agreed to work toward and support a coordinated international response with the U.N. playing a key role."

It's a pretty dramatic shift. Former president George W. Bush's relationship with former Russian president Vladimir Putin was characterized by an unfortunate combination of naivete and cockiness, and ended up remarkably bitter, confrontational and ineffectual.

Before today's meeting, an unnamed senior administration official described Obama's approach this way to ABC's Jake Tapper: "Nobody's going to be looking into anybody's soul."

It was a reference to Bush's first meeting with Putin, at which Bush famously declared that he had looked into the former KGB officer's eyes, had gotten "a sense of his soul," and had "found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy."

Putin proceeded to become increasingly authoritarian, consolidating power both inside and outside Russia. Bush responded by provoking Putin with a proposed missile defense installations in Eastern Europe and a push to include former Soviet republics in NATO. Putin arguably responded by invading Georgia.

Medvedev, for his part, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed yesterday that "relations soured because of the previous U.S. administration's plans -- specifically, deployment of the U.S. global missile defense system in Eastern Europe, efforts to push NATO's borders eastward and refusal to ratify the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe."

But, he wrote: "Neither Russia nor the United States can tolerate drift and indifference in our relations."

Obama, in a joint press availability with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this morning echoed Medvedev's language:

"[W]hat we've seen over the last several years is drift in the U.S.-Russian relationship," he said. "There are very real differences between the United States and Russia, and I have no interest in papering those over. But there are also a broad set of common interests that we can pursue. Both countries, I believe, have an interest in reducing nuclear stockpiles and promoting nuclear nonproliferation. Both countries have an interest in reducing the threat of terrorism. Both countries have an interest in stabilizing the world economy. Both countries have an interest in finding a sustainable path for energy and dealing with some of the threats of climate change that we've discussed.

"So, on a whole range of issues, from Afghanistan to Iran to the topics that will be consuming most of our time here at the G20, I think there's great potential for concerted action. And that's what we will be pursuing.

"Now, as has I think been noted in the press, a good place to start is the issue of nuclear proliferation. And one of the things that I've always believed strongly is that both the United States and Russia and other nuclear powers will be in a much stronger position to strengthen what has become a somewhat fragile, threadbare nonproliferation treaty if we are leading by example and if we can take serious steps to reduce the nuclear arsenal.

"I think people on both sides of the Atlantic understand that as much as the constant cloud, the threat of nuclear warfare has receded since the Cold War, that the presence of these deadly weapons, their proliferation, the possibility of them finding their way into the hands of terrorists, continues to be the gravest threat to humanity. What better project to start off than seeing if we can make progress on that front. I think we can."

In his remarks after meeting with Medvedev, Obama announced that he will travel to Moscow in July.

Peter Baker and Helene Cooper wrote in today's New York Times that "American and Russian officials have privately indicated that they could agree to reducing their stockpiles perhaps to about 1,500 warheads apiece, down from the 2,200 allowed under a treaty signed by President George W. Bush....

"[N]ext year, the two sides envision a more ambitious agreement that could reduce warheads further, even to 1,000, as well as limit delivery vehicles and possibly tactical nuclear weapons....

"Steven Pifer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under Mr. Bush...., said Mr. Obama's initiative could finally bury the cold-war nuclear legacy. 'It's cleaning up some unfinished business that's been put on hold for the last seven years,' he said."

Michael D. Shear writes for The Washington Post that the joint statement "outlines new areas of planned cooperation while skirting some of the most contentious issues that have soured relations during the past several years.

"They pledged to cooperate on trying to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, contain the proliferation of nuclear technology, and fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And they expressed joint concern about North Korea's expected launch of a ballistic missile sometime soon....

"The statement does not attempt to resolve some of the stickiest issues that divide Washington and Moscow, in particular the disagreement over Russia's aggressive actions in the nation of Georgia and the deployment of missile defense equipment in Poland."

Obama Accuses Media of Exaggerating Conflict

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 04/ 1/2009

President Obama this morning denied the widespread reports of major rifts between him and some key European allies about the best way to approach the global financial crisis.

At a joint press availability with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he accused the press corps of hyperbole.

"I know that when you've got a bunch of heads of state talking, it's not visually that interesting -- (laughter) -- and it -- you know, the communiqués are written in sort of dry language, and so there's a great desire to inject some conflict and some drama into the occasion. But the truth of the matter is, is that I think there has been an extraordinary convergence and I'm absolutely confident that the United States, as -- as a peer of these other countries, will help to lead us through this very difficult time....

"I am absolutely confident that this meeting will reflect enormous consensus about the need to work in concert to deal with these problems. I think that the separation between the various parties involved has been vastly overstated," he said.

"If you look at where there has been the biggest debate, and I think that the press has fastened on this as a ongoing narrative -- this whole issue of fiscal stimulus. And the fact of the matter is, is that almost every country that's participating in this summit has engaged in fiscal stimulus. The ones that are perceived as being resistant to fiscal stimulus have done significant fiscal stimulus. There has not been a dispute about the need for government to act in the face of a rapidly contracting set of markets and very high unemployment.

"Now, there have been differences in terms of how should that stimulus be shaped. There have been arguments, for example, among some European countries that because they have more of a social safety net, that some of the countercyclical measures that we took -- for example, unemployment insurance -- were less necessary for them to take. But the truth is, is that that's -- that's just arguing at the margins. The core notion that government has to take some steps to deal with a contracting global marketplace and that we should be promoting growth, that's not in dispute.

"On the regulatory side, this notion that somehow there are those who are pushing for regulation and those who are resisting regulation is belied by the facts. Tim Geithner, who's sitting here today, went before Congress and proposed as aggressive a set of regulatory measures as any that have emerged among G20 members. That was before we showed up."

Obama described his personal approach this way: "I came here to put forward our ideas, but I also came here to listen, and not to lecture...

"Having said that, we must not miss an opportunity to lead. To confront a crisis that knows no borders, we have a responsibility to coordinate our actions and to focus on common ground, not on our occasional differences. If we do, I believe we can make enormous progress."

Meanwhile, reporters continue to note a variety of signs of potential conflict at tomorrow's meeting.

And Katherine Baldwin writes for the Guardian that "later today Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, will throw down the gauntlet by staging their own joint press conference in London demanding the G20 summit usher in a new era of global regulation of banks, executive bonuses, hedge funds and offshore tax havens.

"In what will be seen as a challenge to Obama, they will also insist nobody at the summit should discuss a fresh stimulus package, despite a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that 'world trade is now in freefall'."


David E. Sanger
writes in the New York Times: "For all of Mr. Obama's early optimism that the rest of the world would follow his lead on big stimulus packages, there is no clear move in that direction.....

"All of this suggests a rebuke of American economic leadership. Yet Mr. Obama is still likely to dominate the discussions here. And there is no clear alternative to his strategy for reviving the world economy....

"A draft of the communiqué that circulated Tuesday and that will be in front of the leaders at the summit meeting commits every nation to make efforts to refloat their economies, but it sets no targets."

Edward Luce and Krishna Guha write in the Financial Times: "Barack Obama enters his first real moment of global diplomacy in London on Wednesday with a paradox: he is the most popular US president in a generation, but you would have to go back more than two generations to find one with fewer cards to play.

"Many outside the US accept that the country is not solely to blame for the global meltdown. None would point the finger at Mr Obama personally. But it is he who will be the target of long pent-up resentment at the US's evangelical approach now that its belief in self-regulating markets has been discredited."

This morning, Obama seemed ready to take a few lumps. Asked whether the U.S. caused the crisis, he replied; "I would say that if you look at the sources of this crisis, the United States certainly has some accounting to do with respect to a regulatory system that was inadequate to the massive changes that had taken place in the global financial system."

But, he said, "at this point, I'm less interested in identifying blame than fixing the problem. And I think we've taken some very aggressive steps in the United States to do so...

"I had a professor when I was in law school who said some are to blame but all are responsible. And I think that's the best way for us to approach the problem that we have right now."

Kevin Sullivan writes in the Washington Post about the chummy press conference: "Intent on dismissing talk of cool interpersonal relations, they offered each other big verbal bear hugs. Obama called Brown 'Gordon' so many times that a beaming and normally hyper-formal Brown finally took the plunge and tossed out a few genial 'Baracks.'

"Being a 'Buddy of Barack' in Europe these days is pure political gold dust, and Brown was visibly tickled when Obama said that not only was he enjoying his hang-time with Gordon, but he had also gotten a kick out of Brown's young sons."

Asked to make a prediction about World Cup soccer, Obama declined: "I have had enough trouble back home picking my brackets for the college basketball tournament," he said. "The last thing I'm going to do is wade into European football. (Laughter.) That would be a mistake. I didn't get a briefing on that, but I sense that would be a mistake. (Laughter.)"

Meanwhile, Jon Cohen blogs that The Washington Post poll finds that 67 percent of Americans support the way Obama is handling international affairs.

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 04/ 1/2009

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "The Obama administration is intensely debating whether and when to release documents from the Bush administration related to harsh interrogation methods used on prisoners belonging to Al Qaeda, according to administration and Congressional officials.

"Some officials, including Gregory B. Craig, the White House counsel, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., have argued for disclosing the material as quickly as possible to distance the new administration from the most controversial policies of the Bush years. Mr. Holder and other top officials have condemned the most extreme of the past interrogation techniques, waterboarding, as illegal torture, and they see no reason to hide from public view what they consider the mistakes of their predecessors.

"But some former and current Central Intelligence Agency officials say a rush to release classified material could expose intelligence methods and needlessly offend dedicated counterterrorism officers. Some administration and Congressional officials said John O. Brennan, a C.I.A. veteran who now serves as President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, has urged caution in disclosing interrogation documents."

Carrie Johnson writes for The Washington Post: "Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) expressed alarm Tuesday that Bush administration lawyers allegedly were given an unusual opportunity to shape a report by Justice Department ethics watchdogs probing their conduct.

"The senators said they worried that new department leaders and lawmakers would get a watered-down version of a report that had 'undergone significant revisions at the behest of the subjects of the investigation.'

"Last year, the department's Office of Professional Responsibility finished its 4 1/2 -year inquiry of lawyers who blessed harsh interrogations of detainees. But the results of the probe remain under wraps while John C. Yoo and Jay Bybee respond to the findings, according to internal correspondence released yesterday."

Here, is the letter from Durbin and Whitehouse.

As blogger Marcy Wheeler points out, the timing raises the distinct possibility that knowledge of the OPR report's conclusions led former Office of Legal Counsel acting director Steven Bradbury to file a whiny, butt-covering memo five days before Barack Obama took office, officially retracting a whole slew of memos in which his former colleagues secretly rewrote the Constitution.

Among the questions Durbin and Whitehouse want answered:

"Is there any precedent for allowing the subject of an OPR investigation to review and provide comments on a draft report on OPR's findings and conclusions?

"Have the former Justice Department attorneys who are the subjects of the investigation been given a deadline for responding?

"Will OPR provide Attorney General Holder and Deputy Attorney General Ogden with the draft report that it provided to Attorney General Mukasey so that Attorney General Holder and Deputy Attorney General Ogden will know what revisions have been made to the report?"

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:00 PM ET, 04/ 1/2009

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post about the unlikely alliance of groups objecting to stringent new White House rules that ban phone calls and meetings between lobbyists and administration officials about specific stimulus projects. Opponents argue that the ban "unfairly demonizes one group of people and ignores the role played by lawmakers, corporate executives and other non-lobbyists in securing federal funding for favored projects. Those officials will be free to talk to government officials by telephone or in person about specific stimulus projects without being subjected to any disclosure requirements, the critics say."

William Glaberson and Margot Williams write in the New York Times that the 17 members of China's Uighur Muslim minority who have been detained by the United States for seven years "have become something of a Guantánamo Rorschach test: hapless refugees to some, dangerous plotters to others. For the Obama administration, the task of determining which of those portraits is correct and whether the men can be released inside the United States has raised the stakes for the president's plan to close the Guantánamo prison. Either choice is likely to provoke intense reaction....Freeing the Uighurs would be a singular moment in the debate over the Guantánamo prison: critics would see a final judgment that innocent men were locked away there."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times that Senate Republicans are weighing whether to filibuster Obama's first selection for a federal appeals court seat, David F. Hamilton, and his choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, Dawn Johnsen....Ms. Johnsen, a law professor at Indiana University, was an unsparing critic of memorandums, written by lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, that said the president could largely ignore international treaties and Congress in fighting terrorists and that critics have portrayed as allowing torture in interrogation."

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration has decided to seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday, reversing a decision by the Bush administration to shun the U.N.'s premier rights body to protest the repressive states among its membership....Clinton and Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the decision was part of a broader push for 'a new era of engagement' in U.S. foreign policy."

Nick Baumann writes for Mother Jones: "The long saga of the missing White House emails may be finally nearing its end. The Obama administration and two nonprofits that are suing it over millions of missing Bush-era emails have called a truce. A joint motion (PDF) and proposed order (PDF) filed by Justice Department lawyers and the plaintiffs, the National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), call for an indefinite stay of the case so the two sides can continue settlement negotiations."

Matt Corley writes for Thinkprogress.org: "In an interview on NPR's Fresh Air yesterday, host Terry Gross asked investigative journalist Seymour Hersh if, as he continues to investigate the Bush administration, 'more people' were 'coming forward' to talk to him now that 'the president and vice president are no longer in power.' Hersh replied that though 'a lot of people that had told me in the last year of Bush, ‘call me next, next February,' not many people had talked to him. He implied that they were still scared of Cheney. Said Hersh: "He's got people in a lot of agencies that still tell him what's going on. Particularly in defense, obviously. Also in the NSA, there's still people that talk to him. He still knows what's going on. Can he still control policy up to a point? Probably up to a point, a minor point. But he's still there. He's still a presence."

Erica Werner writes for the Associated Press: "Health and Human Services nominee Kathleen Sebelius recently corrected three years of tax returns and paid more than $7,000 in back taxes after finding 'unintentional errors' — the latest tax troubles for an Obama administration nominee."

What made anyone think this man belonged in Obama's cabinet? Senator Judd Gregg, Obama's one-time commerce secretary nominee, writes in a Washington Post op-ed about Obama's "defining" budget proposal: "It shows very clearly where the president and the Democratic majority want to take our country: sharply to the left." He adds: "[D]on't be fooled when the president says the economy he inherited is the reason that future deficits and debt skyrocket."

Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in a New York Times op-ed that the Obama administration's plan to rescue ailing banks will only make resuscitating the economy even harder. "Treasury hopes to get us out of the mess by replicating the flawed system that the private sector used to bring the world crashing down, with a proposal marked by overleveraging in the public sector, excessive complexity, poor incentives and a lack of transparency," he writes.

Denise Lavoie writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama's aunt will be allowed to remain in the United States until at least next year as she awaits a chance to make her case before an immigration judge in her bid for asylum from her native Kenya."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:15 AM ET, 04/ 1/2009

Jim Morin, Mike Luckovich, Rob Rogers, Chan Lowe, John Cole, Stuart Carlson and Tony Auth on Obama, GM, and the bankers, Mike Keefe on Obama in Europe, Chip Bok on Obama's brackets, and Dan Wasserman with the day's headlines.

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