To add to Pete’s post on President Obama’s revealing exchange with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, it should be noted that we now have two such incidents from the president. His first saw him insulting Benjamin Netanyahu with his French counterpart when he thought the microphones were off. In this regard, Obama fares quite poorly when compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Bush had a memorable hot-mic moment during his presidency. It occurred as the Second Lebanon War raged on and the international community was hoping for a cease-fire. Bush was talking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both of whom suggested, while they thought their microphones were off, that they didn’t much like UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for a cease-fire, as it would not actually solve anything. Bush said to Blair:
The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh–, and it’s over.
He was, of course, correct. But the point is that when the microphones were off, Bush was–to no one’s surprise–just as supportive of our allies and as tough on our adversaries as he was in public. These moments might seem insignificant, but they reveal why some presidents are able to win the trust of our allies, and others are not. Our most candid moments will always play an outsized role in others’ approximations of our moral compass. This is even more so when they confirm a pattern of behavior.
I don’t remember if Bush had any hot-mic incidents with his Russian counterpart, but Condoleezza Rice had a famous one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2006. The two were arguing about Russia’s lack of support for the American-led aid effort in Iraq. Here is the UK Telegraph’s writeup of the exchange:
Mr Lavrov tried to explain that the international community should not become involved in Iraq’s political process – something that Miss Rice opposes – but should be involved “in support of the political process.”
“What does that mean?” Miss Rice demanded.
After a long pause, Mr Lavrov replied with a sneer: “I think you understand.”
“No, I don’t,” she shot back. As Mr Lavrov refused to lend Russian support to the new aid programme, Miss Rice grew increasingly irritated.
“I just want to register that I think it’s a pity that we can’t endorse something that’s been endorsed by the Iraqis and by the UN,” she said. “But if that’s how Russia sees it, that’s fine.”
The article notes that the other foreign ministers barely spoke at all during the exchange. That’s because they usually rely on the Americans to register the West’s disapproval of Russia’s mischief making.
Well, they used to.