Barack Obama landed Monday in Moscow, the first stop on his latest magical mystery tour, this time to eliminate nuclear weapons, cool global warming, drop in on the pope at the Vatican (perhaps to apologize for the Inquisition) and make a call on his ancestral Africa (perhaps to apologize for slavery).
Important though Mr. Obama's trip is, there's a definite buzz in the air that something more interesting than talking and apologizing is on the bubble elsewhere. When an interviewer asked Joe Biden whether Israel is in its rights to punish Iran if no one else does, the veep was unusually forthcoming: "Look," he said, "Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else." Then, as if remembering who he was, he added: "Whether we agree or not."
But would the United States dissuade the Israelis? "Look," he replied, "we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do." This could be just good old Joe speaking his mind, but Mr. Obama no doubt told him to keep his lip carefully buttoned while he was gone. This time good old Joe was saying only what he was told to say.
President Obama arrived in the Russian capital under cold, leaden skies (no sign of global warming) and there was nobody to make a speech to, except for Michelle and the girls. His motorcade into the city passed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier but the crowds watched in silence as the motorcade passed. Then it was on to meet Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, and talk statistics.
Three hours later the two presidents signed an agreement to instruct their negotiators to talk some more about cutting the number of nuclear missiles by 1,100. Or it might be 500. The number of warheads will be limited to 1,675 each. Or it might be less than that. Or maybe more. Whatever. The talking continues.
Summits are not what they used to be, and the cold air in the Russian capital did not crackle with the usual electricity, and the press entourage was for once not in a rush to declare a "winner." But maybe there is one already. The Russians agreed to allow American overflights over its territory to resupply American troops as Mr. Obama expands his war in Afghanistan. Mr. Medvedev - and particularly Vladimir Putin - would no doubt be delighted to see Mr. Obama come a cropper in Afghanistan, just as they did: "Mr. Obama, be our guest."
There was nothing said publicly about what to do about Iran, a client of the Russians, but clearly the big overflight news was reported from London, where the London Sunday Times said the director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, had concluded from his very private talks with Saudi officials that Saudi Arabia would not object - beyond the usual invective in the deeper shades of purple at the United Nations - if Israeli bombers fly over the kingdom "on a mission … in the common interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia."
John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is not surprised, calling the news "entirely logical." He has talked with several Arab leaders and "none of them would say anything about it publicly but they would certainly acquiesce in an overflight if the Israelis didn't trumpet it as a big success." He noted that the Israelis have not said a word about bombing a suspected Syrian nuclear site.
The Sunni states are sometimes modest in a few things but never in their suspicion and hatred of the Shi'ites. There's the usual cry that such an Israeli strike would "destabilize" the region, and set off a nuclear arms race among the Sunni states. But once Iran, the chief Shi'ite state, is capable of firing nuclear missiles the Sunnis would certainly demand one of their own. That's when the race would begin.