This is about the worst offer that the new U.S. administration could have made to Russia - to exchange the (not yet built) missile defense in Europe for Russia's cooperation in putting pressure on Iran to keep it from developing long-range missiles. The offer was made in a private letter from President Obama to President Medvedev sent about three weeks ago. The news about the letter was originally reported by Kommersant the  and the New York Times leads with it on Tuesday.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the United States trying to get Russia's cooperation. And there is absolutely no reason why Russia should not cooperate with the United States, be it on constraining Iran's missile program or on something else. But by linking that cooperation to the issue of missile defense the U.S. administration is reinforcing the exactly wrong perception that many in Russia have about that system - that missile defense is put in Eastern Europe to pressure Russia. Which is precisely what one would want to avoid.

I wouldn't say I expected something much different from the new administration. Thinking about Russia in Washington has been very simplistic for quite a while on both sides of the partisan divide. But it is still very disappointing to see the new administration continuing the grand old tradition of U.S. diplomacy - trying to get something for nothing.

UPDATE 03/03/09: President Obama said that the reports "didn't accurately characterize the letter", which may well be the case. However, at least one "senior administration official", quoted in the Times story, has no problems with that characterization:

It’s almost saying to them, put up or shut up [...] It’s not that the Russians get to say, ‘We’ll try and therefore you have to suspend.’ It [the letter] says the threat has to go away.

Unfortunately, too many administration officials seem to see the problem this way. Not to mention that this kind of thinking implies that missile defense would be somehow useful in dealing with the missile threat from Iran (should it ever materialize). It certainly won't.