June 18th, 2012
08:38 PM ET
LOS CABOS, MEXICO – Call it a case of appearances over substance. During brief remarks after President Obama’s bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday morning, the two leaders’ body language seemed to indicate the meeting had not gone well. They rarely looked at each other, never smiled and ended their meeting with a perfunctory handshake.
Reporters pounced on such a dramatic visual representation of what has recently been a somewhat troubled relationship. Russia has refused to go along with the United States and other nations in calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, and has blocked two U.N. Security Council Resolutions sanctioning the Syrian government.
At a briefing after the morning meeting, top White House aides warned reporters against reading into what one called the leaders’ “businesslike” meeting.
“Go back and look at the tape when he met with Obama the last time,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told reporters. “You'll see exactly the same body language. I have. That's just his style and I really would encourage you not to over-read how somebody is sitting as an indication of where the relationship is.”
A few hours later, the two leaders appeared much warmer during an afternoon G-20 plenary session. As if playing to the cameras, the leaders gave each other a thumbs up before Obama leaned over to Putin before the meeting’s opening remarks. Putin whispered something in Obama’s ear, and the two presidents shared a laugh.
Although the White House may have pushed back against reporters’ version of the picture that was being painted of the two leaders’ relationship, in the end they seemed to acknowledge the effect of the visual that overshadowed the message.