White House Wages Rescue Effort for 'Reset' Rhetoric

In the face of what promised to be a blistering "reset" rebuke from Vladimir Putin, the White House tried to push Russia's pet projects and leave stinging criticism of the Kremlin's relationships with nefarious regimes to the side at today's G-20 meeting.

President Obama's meeting with President Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, was the first time they'd even seen each other for three years and the first meeting between the pair since Obama was caught in an embarrassing and damaging off-mic soundbite telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev that Putin could be assured he'd have more "flexibility" on missile defense after the U.S. presidential election.

"Today we had a very meaningful and subject-oriented discussion. We've been able to discuss issues pertaining to security. We discussed bilateral economic relations," Putin said first in a brief joint appearance before the media.

"We also discussed international affairs, including the Syrian affair," the Russian leader continued. "From my perspective, we've been able to find many commonalities pertaining to all of those issues. And we'll now further develop our contacts both on a personal level and on the level of our experts involved."

Obama, speaking far longer than his counterpart, used his time to stress how well reset has gone: part bilateral meeting, part campaign stump.

"Over the last three years, the United States and Russia have been able to make significant progress on a wide range of issues, including the New START Treaty, the 1,2,3 Agreement, the work we've done on Russia's accession to the WTO, and setting up a presidential process whereby issues of trade and commerce, science, technology are all discussed at a much more intensive level," Obama said.

"We agreed that we need to build on these successes, even as we recognize that there are going to be areas of disagreement, and that we can find constructive ways to manage through any bilateral tensions," he added.

Obama mentioned Syria last -- not of Russia selling attack helicopters to Bashar al-Assad, but of the need to work together with "international actors" like the U.N. to try to cease the violence.

The White House pool reporter noted that the atmosphere in the room was "not cheerful."

"President Putin was sitting comfortably, leaning back, face motionless. No smile," the report said. "President Obama was sitting next to him but facing mostly the interpreter. Very few smiles."

Asked if the meeting, which began half an hour late, was important for the Russians, a Russian diplomat said: "Yes, but even more for the Americans."

The two countries issued an unusually lengthy joint statement shortly after the meeting about their  "commitment to strengthening close and cooperative relations for the benefit of the peoples of our countries, international peace, global prosperity, and security."

The first item listed was the "expansion of trade and investment relations," specifically Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and the Obama administration's push for Congress "to terminate, as soon as possible, application of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment with respect to Russia and extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations to the Russian Federation."

The statement then gushed about Obama's pet project of nuclear nonproliferation. "We recognize the achievements made through the Nuclear Security Summits, including the removal and elimination of nuclear materials, minimization of the civilian use of highly enriched uranium, and worldwide improvements in a nuclear security culture," it states.

"As a priority, we intend to successfully implement the New START Treaty, and to continue our discussions on strategic stability. Despite differences in assessments, we have agreed to continue a joint search for solutions to challenges in the field of missile defense."

It mentioned Iran's nuclear programs as talks concurrently began today in Moscow with the P5+1 -- talks where Tehran is holding firm on its demands -- and stresses that "our common goal remains a comprehensive negotiated settlement based on the principles of a step-by-step approach and reciprocity."

Then before a long section about counterterrorism and drug trafficking comes the carefully worded statement on Syria:  "In order to stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence and express full support for the efforts of UN/League of Arab States Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, including moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity. We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future."

Russia's Interfax news agency reported that two Russian naval ships, each capable of carrying up to 300 marines and a dozen tanks, were heading to Syria to "protect our citizens." Russia is the top arms supplier to Syria, selling more than $1 billion in arms to the regime in 2011 alone.

And as if putting a cherry on a melting sundae, the State Department then sent out a fact sheet on "The United States and Russia: A Multifaceted Relationship," highlighting seven areas of cooperation between the two countries that linked to more fact sheets ranging from cultural exchanges to energy and healthcare.

The robotic pleasantries exchanged in public between the leaders belied the anger that Russia is feeling toward Washington as lawmakers try to get tough on the Kremlin where the reset-minded White House has barely tread.

A bipartisan group of senators has made nixing the Jackson-Vanik amendment that stands in the way of Russia's WTO membership conditional upon the enactment of human-rights sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the November 2009 prison death of Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered wide-scale corruption in the Russian government.

“Visiting the United States and having access to our financial system, including U.S. dollars, are privileges that should not be extended to those who violate basic human rights and the rule of law," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) when the House Foreign Affairs Committee took up the bipartisan bill earlier this month. "…Once enacted, the bill named in his honor will provide powerful tools to combat the serious human rights violations that continue to occur on a daily basis in Russia and throughout the world.”

Last July, the Obama administration imposed a visa ban on 11 Russian officials accused of playing a role in the lawyer's death. In retaliation, Russia barred 11 U.S. officials that it says were involved with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib abuses.

Putin, who preceded the summit with a lengthy article in Mexico's El Universal daily on how to meet global economic challenges, will hold his own press conference tomorrow afternoon in a convention center at the G-20.

Things won't get any easier for Obama when he returns to Washington: On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will delve into implementation of the New START treaty that Obama arm-twisted through the upper chamber in 2010 with promises of modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex even as he focuses on his "global zero" disarmament doctrine.

Both the House and the Senate have been pushing ways to get the president to keep his promise, as the promised modernization funds weren't in his FY 2013 budget.

In April, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) called on Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to hold the oversight hearing “to determine whether the administration has fully lived up to the expectations raised and commitments made in order to garner support” for the treaty.

Even before today's meeting, the White House was trying to lay the groundwork for a reset rescue.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call Friday that the relationship with Russia wouldn't be based "overly on personalities," acknowledging the "good and close personal rapport" Obama had with Medvedev and the fact that Putin "clearly is somebody who can articulate where he has differences with the United States."

"First of all, we don’t attribute that progress that’s been made over the course of the last several years just to that personal rapport. It’s a lot of hard, technical work that was done, in many respects, to get the New START Treaty done or to get the Northern Distribution Network set up," Rhodes said.

"Secondly, Prime Minister Putin, as Prime Minister, was certainly an influential figure within Russia during the time of the reset," he added. "So given his influence within Russia and its system, even as President Medvedev was of course the leader of the government, our assessment is that Prime Minister Putin was supportive of the reset as it unfolded over the course of the last several years."

At the first plenary session, Putin and Obama were seated next to each other, according to the White House pool report, but weren't seen greeting each other or even looking at one another.

After today's bilateral meeting, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN that the two leaders, particularly on Syria, gave the "kind of statement that you usually hear when there's no concrete agreement."

"Also, it's a little weird, Orwellian, to consider their statement about Kofi Annan -- supporting Kofi Annan's initiative," McCain said. "…To somehow say that they are dependent on what has been a failed course of action is a little bit unrealistic, to say the least."