One of these days, some scholar will do a little history of the odd moments when microphones or recording systems were turned on or left on, whether on purpose or not, and so gave us a bit of history in the raw. We have plenty of American examples of this phenomenon, ranging from the secret White House recordings of President John F. Kennedy's meetings with his advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis (so voluminous as to become multi-volume publications) and Richard Nixon's secret tapes (minus those infamous 18½ minutes), voluminous enough so that you could spend the next 84 days nonstop listening to what's been made publicly available, to the moment in 1984 when a campaigning President Ronald_Reagan quipped on the radio during a microphone check (supposedly unaware that it was on): "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."
Just last week, a lovely little example of this sort of thing came our way and, twenty-two years after Ronald Reagan threatened to atomize the "evil empire," Russia was still the subject. Last Thursday, at a private lunch of G-8 foreign ministers in Moscow, an audio link to the media was left on, allowing reporters to listen in on a running series of arguments (or as the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler put it, "several long and testy exchanges") between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over a collective document no one would remember thenceforth
The whole event was a grim, if minor, comedy of the absurd. According to the Post account, "Reporters traveling with Rice transcribed the tape of the private luncheon but did not tell Rice aides about it until after a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity as usual, assured them that 'there was absolutely no friction whatsoever' between the two senior diplomats." (What better reminder do we need that so much anonymous sourcing granted by newspapers turns out to be a mix of unreliable spin and outright lies readers would be better off without?) In, as Kessler wrote, "a time of rising tension in U.S.-Russian relations," the recording even caught "the clinking of ice in glasses and the scratch of cutlery on plates," not to speak of the intense irritation of both parties.
"Sometimes the tone smacked of the playground" is the way a British report summed the encounter up, but decide for yourself. Here's a sample of what "lunch" sounded like -- the context of the discussion was Iraq (especially outrage over the kidnapping and murder of four employees of the Russian embassy in Baghdad):
"Rice said she worried [Lavrov] was suggesting greater international involvement in Iraq's affairs.
"'I did not suggest this,' Lavrov said. 'What I did say was not involvement in the political process but the involvement of the international community in support of the political process.'
"'What does that mean?' Rice asked.
"There was a long pause. 'I think you understand,' he said.
"'No, I don't,' Rice said.
"Lavrov tried to explain, but Rice said she was disappointed. '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 the U.N.,' she said, adding tartly: 'But if that's how Russia sees it, that's fine.'"
Behind Rice's irritation certainly lay a bad few Russia weeks for the administration. Not only had the Russians been flexing their energy muscles of late, consorting with the Chinese and various of the Soviet Union's former Soviet Socialist Republics in Central Asia, which the Bush administration covets for their energy resources; but, as the ministers were meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin -- you remember, another one of those world leaders George Bush "looked in the eyes" and found to be "trustworthy" (but that was so long ago) -- made it frustratingly clear that he would not back U.S. moves against neighboring Iran and its putative nuclear program at the UN. "'We do not intend to join any sort of ultimatum, which only pushes the situation into a dead end, striking a blow against the authority of the UN Security Council,' Putin told Russian diplomats in Moscow in the presence of journalists. 'I am convinced that dialogue and not isolation of one or another state is what leads to resolution of crises.'"
There is, however, a larger, far more perilous context within which to view the "testy" relationship between the two former Cold War superpowers and, for once, someone has managed to lay it out brilliantly, connecting the dots for the rest of us. In The New American Cold War, the cover story of the most recent Nation magazine, Russia specialist Stephen F. Cohen finally catches the essence of that ever degrading relationship. What Cohen points out is that, after the USSR unraveled, the Cold War never actually ended, not on the American side anyway, and today it not only continues at nearly full blast, but the Russians have finally reentered the game.