South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint is quickly becoming the leading spokesman arguing against President Obama's reset policy with Russia, but his penchant for extreme rhetoric and loose understanding of the facts is overshadowing his message and, according to the administration, unhelpfully muddying the discussion.
DeMint has made increasing forays into the foreign-policy game this year. He was a key player in the Honduras policy debate, taking sides against ousted president Manuel Zelaya weeks before the administration eventually followed suit. He is deeply involved in the GOP drive to hold up a range of State Department nominees, and has used his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to stall the appointment of international broadcasting officials as well.
But when it comes to Russia, DeMint's rhetoric is hurting his case. That was on full display during an event on the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held by the Foreign Policy Initiative Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol building, where the senator referred to Russia several times as the "Soviet Union."
"Clearly the Soviet Union as a democracy is a fraud. Rule of law is very loose, foreign investment is very low," he said. "The Soviet Union, I mean Russia, is making the countries around it concerned with how Russia is constantly trying to manipulate their elections, undermine their freedom, and impose some control."
Think Progress blogger Max Bergmann noted that DeMint called Russia the Soviet Union at a hearing on the new START treaty last week as well.
At the FPI event, DeMint also explained his overall take on Russia. "Russia is trying to undermine American strength in different parts of the world. As we think of Russia, it s important to think of them as a threat to many and a protector of none," he said. He also at one point said, "I don't pretend to be an expert."
DeMint's expertise on Russia was also called into question after he seemingly misrepresented the objectives of both the Bush and Obama administrations in deploying ballistic missile defense systems in Europe.
At a May 18 hearing, he complained that the current design of the system isn't sufficient to combat Russia's missile arsenal, which numbers into the thousands. "Is it not desirable for us to have a missile defense system that renders their threat useless?," he asked.
Both administrations have gone to great pains to explain that the system has always been aimed at Iran, not Russia, and it's hard to find a credible expert who believes that any feasible conception of missile defense could be built to overpower the Russian capability.
Inside the Obama administration, officials look at DeMint's Russia activity with a mixture of amusement and concern. They believe that he is sacrificing his own credibility by fumbling on the issue, but at the same time, they worry that foreign governments and publics might actually take him seriously.
"We are happy to let Senator DeMint keep digging away at the hole he is already in," an administration official told The Cable. "He seems to have forgotten that even the Rumsfeld-led Pentagon in the last administration explicitly ruled out a U.S. missile defense system targeting Russia's nuclear forces -- and for good reason."
But they don't discount the effect DeMint is having on the debate. Among administration officials, there is some legitimate concern that DeMint's statements only reinforce the paranoia of some elements in Russia (and China) that U.S. missile defense systems are indeed targeted at their strategic nuclear forces.
"It is unfortunate that the hard-liners in the United States and Russia feed off each other and feed the other's paranoia," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World. "Just as GOP senators quote Russian statements on missile defense to prove their case, Russians will be happy to quote Senator DeMint."
Sylvie Stein contributed to this article.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.