During a press conference today in The Netherlands, ABC's Jonathan Karl asked President Obama if he thought "Mitt Romney had a point" when he said in 2012 that Russia was America's "number one" geopolitical foe. Obama took advantage of the question to slam his current political opponent, Vladimir Putin.
Karl's question began with a challenge. "In China, Syria, and Egypt — and now in Russia — we have seen you make strong statements and issue warnings that have been ignored. Are you concerned that America's influence in the world, your influence in the world, is on the decline?" And, he added, in light of recent developments, have you rethought your critiques of Romney?
During the 2012 campaign, Romney called Russia "our number one geopolitical foe," later downgrading that to a geopolitical foe as The Washington Post notes. The Obama campaign quickly criticized Romney for the statement, but Putin's invasion of Crimea has led to a round of told-ya-so's from Romney and his supporters.
Obama's Romney response could have served as a response to both of Karl's questions. From a rough transcript:
The truth of the matter is that America has got a whole lot of challenges. Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength, but out of weakness. ...
We have considerable influence on neighbors. We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt the need to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.
My response [to Romney] then continues to be what I believe today, which is: Russia's actions are a problem. They don't pose the number one national security threat to the United States.
Instead, Obama said, his main concern was "the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan," bringing the conversation back to the security summit that he was in The Netherlands to attend.
It's a clever argument, one that was also reflected in his answers to questions about the role of sanctions in bringing Putin to heel. Obama's stated goal is to "spend as much effort on bolstering the economy inside of Ukraine" as possible, increasing its global strength against what he depicts as Russia's weakness. And that work only happens, he said, in concert with other countries. "What the United States has been consistently been able to do and continues to be able to do is mobilize the international community around a set of principles and norms," he said in response to Karl. "We may not act militarily, but that does not mean that we don't steadily push against those forces that would violate those principles and ideals we care about."
On his personal index of foes, Obama claims that Putin isn't at the top. Fair enough. But his answer to Karl suggests that Romney doesn't even make the list.