While Barack Obama left the US for Brazil just as he ordered our forces into a new war, the second in civilian command of the military left shortly afterward to meet with Russia’s defense minister.  Robert Gates had been tasked, Obama said, with coordinating the efforts of our military alliance, but instead went to Moscow in an apparent attempt to head off opposition from Russia.  Instead, Gates wound up sitting in a press conference while Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov rebuked the US with a demand for an immediate cease fire in Libya:

In a rebuke of U.S. policy in Libya, the Russian defense minister condemned civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes and called for immediate cease-fire on Tuesday as Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat stonily beside him.

Speaking to reporters following an hourlong meeting with Gates, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia continued to support the United Nations resolution authorizing the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya but made clear that Moscow was increasingly uneasy about the escalating campaign.

“Unfortunately, recent developments in the country demonstrate that it is experiencing real hostilities, destroying civilian facilities, and the killing of civilians,” Serdyukov said. “This shouldn’t have been let to happen and we informed our U.S. counterparts of our opposition.”

Gates, in his own remarks, said the coalition was going out of its way to avoid civilian deaths, noting that most of the strikes have targeted Libyan defensive systems located far away from major population centers. Gates also said he expected major combat operations over Libya to taper off markedly within the next few days; he is the first senior American official to put any sort of timetable on the ongoing offensive there.

Not to ask the obvious, but where is the civilian command of the US armed forces at the moment?  President Obama is in Chile at the moment, and Gates is busy getting embarrassed in Moscow.  Hillary Clinton isn’t in the civilian chain of command as Secretary of State, but she’s the only high-level official to at least be in physical contact with our coalition partners.  Who exactly is in the same room with our own Joint Chiefs?  Joe Biden?

As Secretary of Defense, Gates has more pressing issues on his plate than diplomatic coordination with the Russians, a mission that failed anyway.  That was a job for Hillary Clinton or the current ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, who has been in Moscow for almost three years.  Besides the obvious failure in this instance, Gates’ reaction to Sedyukov’s statement suggests he was the wrong man for the job anyway:

“I’m a little curious, frankly, about the tone that has been taken,” Gates said. “It’s perfectly evident that the vast majority, if not nearly all, civilian casualties have been inflicted by Qaddafi… and it’s almost as though some people here are taking at false value Qaddafi’s claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I’m concerned are just outright lies.”

Gates’s comments were an implicit rebuke to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who on Monday accused the U.S. of causing significant civilian casualties in Libya and likened the entire American-led operation there to a “crusade.”

Why did we bother with this trip at all?  The Obama administration managed to get Russia to abstain on the UN Security Council resolution, which was a victory in and of itself.  Obama should have left it at that, especially since Gates should have been at home or in the same room as our coalition partners for coordination of the opening of hostilities — and even more especially since our President couldn’t be bothered to do so himself.  Instead, Gates gave Russia an opportunity to publicly humiliate him, and in response we called the Russians liars.  Gates’ mission has made a difficult situation appreciably worse.

Whatever kind of power that demonstrates, it isn’t smart power.

Update: The debate over the Libyan intervention has opened a rift between Vladimir Putin and his protege, Dmitri Medvedev:

Russia’s two leaders are openly disagreeing over the U.N. resolution authorizing international military action against Libya, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin comparing it to the medieval crusades and President Dmitry Medvedev warning him to watch his use of words.

Their statements represented a rare open clash on foreign policy. …

Hours later, Medvedev rebuked the prime minister: “We have to be absolutely accurate in our assessments. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations such as crusades and so on.”

The Russian president defended the decision to abstain in last week’s vote at the United Nations and characterized the resolution as a legitimate response to Moammar Gadhafi’s “crimes against his own people.”

“The resolution in general reflects our understanding of what’s going on in Libya, but not entirely,” Medvedev said. “That is why we did not use our veto right.”

That’s an interesting development, although more likely a momentary hiccup in their partnership.

Update: Ninjapirate says that this trip has been planned for a while and wasn’t about Libya.  Er, shouldn’t it have been postponed once we declared war, especially with the President going out of town?  And if it wasn’t about Libya when it was first planned, that certainly became the subject, as Russia demonstrated in this press conference.

Also, I changed the headline from “snubs” to “rebukes” for more accuracy.