NOW with Alex Wagner | June 19, 2012
>>> i've been in a lot of meetings with putin . i've watched a lot of video of him. there was nothing extraordinary. that's the way he looks. that's the way he acts. i wouldn't read anything into that at all.
>> that was u.s. ambassador to russia , mike mcfall, pushing back against interpretations relating to the body language between russian president vladimir putin and president obama during their meeting at the g-20 yesterday. reports described their demeanor as chilly, like a cold moscow winter, but the administration calls it businesslike and cordial. joining us is "new york times" white house correspondent peter baker , who was formerly based in moscow and covered vladimir putin extensively. great to see you, albeit remote. thanks for joining us. so are we making too much of a big deal ? there are a lot of photos we have showing an incredibly awkward sit-down between the president and president putin . what do you make of that relationship and specifically, could you contrast it to the relationship the president, president obama had with medvedev?
>> right. good question. look, partly we focus on body language because the actual statements that were released after the meeting were so benign. they didn't reveal very much about what was said in the meeting. we take a look at how they sit, how they interact with each other, and yes, this is a very chilly looking pair there, and the ambassador is right. this is how putin is but that's sort of the point. medvedev and obama seemed to share rapport when they got together, younger men, both lawyers. president putin , of course, a former kgb officer, not all that happy with the united states right now on a variety of topics.
>> we know there's been a tit for tat for tat between the two leaders, declining invitations to various events where one was hosting, but certainly the u.s. is in a position right now where we need cooperation from the russians on a variety of foreign policy fronts but most pressing of all, probably syria . so the question is, what's your expectation in terms of anything tangible getting done?
>> well, i wouldn't expect president putin to suddenly jump in and push bashir al assad out of damascus. it's not in his interest, not his instinct. he looks outside the kremlin and sees tens of thousands of protesters right now who are demonstrating against his rule, nonviolently, not like in syria , but he sees the bad precedent if foreign powers are allowed to say you're not a legitimate leader anymore.
>> i want to open this up to the panel for a discussion in terms of how this plays out for the president. michael, the " wall street journal " today critical of the president, surprise, saying the substitute for u.s. leadership is not a new era of u.n. administered peace. it is often a vacuum filled by the world's nastiest actors that is nowhere clearer than in syria , where wrurussia and iran have a free run to solidify the world's dictatorship. what matters is if you have partners or patrons in moscow , beijing or tehran.
>> i wonder if the " wall street journal " would have written that editorial if a republican president was in office facing what is a very dicey situation. there's not really a good military option in syria . you don't want to start a whole other conflict when we have egypt very shaky right now. iran on the brink in several different ways. but right now, in the political debate, republicans don't really have substantial contrast to put forward with president obama . he's very popular in a lot of his foreign policy positions. so what you get are stylistic contrasts, saying why aren't we tougher, why aren't we leading from the front. mitt romney 's statements on obama, once you start getting beyond the initial sentence, the sound bite , are almost always sort of stylistic criticisms. they're not substantive criticisms.
>> don't we need to consider the context? with gadhafi, similar editorials were written about the lack of action. you are witnessing what's happening in egypt where the military is now basically sir circumvented this entire process, taken over power. it's easy in concept to say see where the chips fall, but when you look back at what happened in egypt and libya, there's a lot more complexity to the situation. i think the smart prudent thing to do probably is to step back for a second and say okay, let's game this out, what actually happens, where do the players fall if we actually intervene more forcefully.
>> one of the few areas where romney has articulated a specific position has been with russia, saying --
>> they're our number one geopolitical threat.
>> as we are re-aligning ourselves to deal with the china situation and some of those commercial disputes which a lot of people, a lot of republican analysts have criticized romney for doing. but in terms of the overall thing, i think the chilliness is both sides here. there were significant raids in moscow ahead of these inauguration protests. people's apartments being ransacked and i don't think the president is particularly keen on putin at the moment and doesn't really want to be seen as embracing this guy who is increasingly being seen as a dictator.
>> this is -- president putin has been re-re-re-elected. this is his third go-round in terms of russian politics . i wonder as someone that understands the region well, what do you think putin and his administration, if you will, think of the comments that folks like mitt romney have been making in terms of saying russia is our number one geopolitical foe, even some of the language around china and currency manipulation. we know the president is meeting with jin-tao later today. the russian stance toward china has been very antagonistic.
>> president putin is sitting back and weigaiting at this point. part of the chill you see in this relationship is sort of uncertainty on his part about where he wants to go forward. privately he tells president obama and his people that he wants to cement this reset relationship that had been brought into the fore the last few years but publicly, he's sort of rattling the anti-american sabers which he has been known to do. as he watches governor romney , he remembers that george w. bush running for president in 2000 was very critical of bill clinton 's closeness to yeltsin, bush was critical of the behavior in chechnyia. then the two of them managed to create a fairly productive relationship for a number of years before it kind of broke down at the end. putin is a realist, a pragmatist. he doesn't take all this stuff too seriously and acts in what he sees as his own interest, not in what america thinks is his interest.
>> it is certainly a developing situation. we will be pouring over the jpegs and online screen shots of the two men meeting all day with all sorts of armchair psychoanalysis. the "new york times" peter baker , thank you for your time, sir. the break, is