Mitt Romney has created an international confrontation over his claim that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," but most national security leaders in Congress, including Republicans, simply don't think Russia deserves that stature.
Romney doubled down on his criticism of Russia and the Obama administration's handling of the U.S.-Russia relationship in a Tuesday op-ed for Foreign Policy, in which he again criticized Obama for telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a hot mic that he needed "space" on issues such as missile defense because he would have more "flexibility" after the November election. Medvedev said that Romney's comments "smell of Hollywood" and that presidential candidates "need to use one's head, one's good reason."
"It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House," Romney shot back.
On Capitol Hill, top Republicans have little praise for Medvedev or Russia and maintain that Moscow has played an unhelpful international role and represses its own citizens. But these lawmakers see Russia as a power in decline and therefore not worthy of the title of America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
"I don't see them as our No. 1 strategic foe because they've got a weak economy and structurally are not very strong. China could potentially be more harming to our interests because of the growth of their economy and the growth of their military," Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable.
Russia is in decline on many fronts, due to a lack of a moral direction by Kremlin combined with rampant corruption and a regime that's desperately trying to hang on to power, Graham said.
"I think Russia is behaving in a manner very inconsistent with being a mature member of the international community, but I see Russia as a declining power because they choose to embrace a model that never ended well in history. Instead of helping the world do things like get rid of Assad, they seem to be ambivalently or actively encouraging people to do bad things," he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable that he agreed with Romney that Obama's comments about flexibility on missile defense were alarming, but he wouldn't say Russia was the No. 1 geopolitical foe of the United States.
"I think they are a strategic challenge," McCain said. "They continue to supply [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad while he slaughters Syrians and they continue to obviously oppose our missile-defense systems. They continue to be an oppressive and repressive regime.
"Fortunately in many ways they are declining. But this recent consolidation of power shows a lack of democracy there," McCain said.
In a Wednesday morning appearance on Fox and Friends, McCain expressed more support for Romney's Russia claim.
"I think in many respects [they are the number one geopolitical foe]," McCain said. "Look at what they are doing in Syria right now... they continue to prop up North Korea and obviously now they have a president for life."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), another member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lamented the backsliding of democracy in Russia but also denied that Russia the No. 1 geopolitical foe in the world.
"I wouldn't have put in the way Mitt Romney did, but I don't dismiss his thoughts," Lieberman told The Cable. "China's rising; Russia seems to be in a holding pattern but still quite strong militarily. And they have been in the way of progress in a lot of things going on in the world."
"The developments in Russia have been one of the most disappointing things that have happened in the world over the last 20 years or so," he said. "When the Berlin Wall fell and the first wave of Russian democracy came, I was very optimistic. But both internally they are a very repressive society and externally, it's better than the Cold War but we're still bumping into Russia too many times, as in Syria."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not nearly as bad as Romney makes it seem and actually has potential for productivity and progress.
"Russia's cooperating with us on some things, it's not on others. The threat of religious extremism is not centered in Russia; it's centered in South Asia and the Middle East and that is an enormous and time-consuming challenge for all of our national security enterprises." Kerry said. "So I think [Romney] is vastly and significantly off target as well as in terms of potential of the upsides with Russia if we move forward on a number of things."
In his original interview with CNN, Romney made clear that he doesn't see Russia as the number one immediate security challenge. He said Russia is the greatest American foe "in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran."