Its always exciting when foreign policy comes front and center in an election. Usually its “The Economy” or some other domestic issue that separates the candidates, so its particularly interesting that the Democrats have turned to foreign policy as the first major issue on which the major candidates have (or have at least manufactured) a stark difference. Today’s installment of Ducking the Issues examines the Clinton – Obama dust-up over meeting with foreign leaders.
QUESTION: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
COOPER: I should also point out that Stephen is in the crowd tonight. Senator Obama?
OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous. (APPLAUSE) Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward. And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We’ve been talking about Iraq — one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses. They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.
Obama did get this answer right, despite the significant criticism he has endured for it, and its important to note why. First, look at the question–it asks if the candidate would be willing “to meet, without precondition” a number of leaders, and frames it in the spirit of bold diplomacy and leadership from past global peacemakers. Obama seeks to pick up that mantle of global leadership, and does so with his answer. He draws a sharp and important contrast with the current administration, which has chosen confrontation over negotiation in dealing with hostile regimes, and says that he’s willing to chart a diplomatic course.
The key line, of course, is “without precondition.” Now, every world leader, including Bush, is willing to meet with any other world leader, including the aforemention rogues gallery, if the right conditions are met. Were Castro willing to announce his abdication, or were Kim Jong Il willing to de-militarize, they could both win a White House invitation tomorrow. In fact, a hallmark of the Bush administration has been to lay out such stringent conditions on any diplomacy that it renders it all but impossible, thereby creating a rhetorical justification for unilateral action. Obama wants to draw a sharp contrast, and does so.
COOPER: Senator Clinton?
CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy. And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be. (APPLAUSE)
COOPER: Senator Edwards, would you meet with Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il?
EDWARDS: Yes, and I think actually Senator Clinton’s right though. Before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work, the diplomacy, to make sure that that meeting’s not going to be used for propaganda purposes, will not be used to just beat down the United States of America in the world community. But I think this is just a piece of a bigger question, which is, what do we actually do? What should the president of the United States do to restore America’s moral leadership in the world. It’s not enough just to lead with bad leaders. In addition to that, the world needs to hear from the president of the United States about who we are, what it is we represent.
Clinton (with Edwards tagging along for the ride) does two important things with her answer. First, she draws a contrast between her and Obama. This is the well-reported story, she trumpets her White House (albeit East Wing) experience vs. his youthful inexperience, which when cast as naive, becomes dangerous rather than refreshing and undermines Obama’s campaign mantra of sound judgment. Second, though, notice how she shifts the question to make such an answer possible. Clinton says that she will not promise to meet anyone without some sort of positive deal (negotiated at lower levels) is in place. On the one hand, such is the case–this is how Presidents have historically used the power of the office and the power of a Presidential visit, as a reward for making a deal with the US. On the other hand….
Obama never “promised” to meet with anyone. He said he’d be willing to meet with them, and that he’d be willing to set up such a meeting without a laundry list of preconditions. This does not necessarily imply that he would actually meet with them, let alone become some propaganda on Hugo Chavez’s behalf (do you really think Chavez or Ahmadinejad wants to meet with the American President? It could hurt them as much as us.) Obviously, the President of the United States doesn’t just drop by Fidel’s place for coffee. Obviously, there’s the prep work that Clinton spoke of. But, notice how Edwards and Clinton then take the opportunity to back Obama’s main point–that the current Administration has ignored diplomacy, and in doing so has weakened American’s global leadership.
Moreover, and here’s where I think Obama is in fact justified in his position, Clinton says that she wants to know the “way forward” before she meets with these types of world leaders. Typically, that’s how most high-level meetings happen. But, it also displays a certain degree of foreign policy establishment conservatism (with a small c, as in slow to change). As the questioner points out, bold diplomacy such as Sadat going to Jerusalem or Reagan meeting Gorbachev requires meetings between heads of state without preconditions. It is sometimes the fact that diplomats, operating in a standard policy framework, can’t see a way forward, and need a jump start from an involved President personally willing to invest credibility to move an international reconciliation forward. Could there have been a Camp David Accords without Sadat taking charge and making such a bold statement? If he had left it to his foreign ministry to work out all the details before he took his trip, would the trip ever have been made?
The point is this. Clinton’s answer is a good one, and plays to her real strength as a candidate: 8 years of presidential-level experience in the White House, and a sense that she is a real leader fully capable of making the right decisions for the nation on tough choices. It also knocks her opponent down a peg, attacking what he is trying to play up as his key strength–judgment over experience–by casting him as naive.
However, Obama’s answer does not deserve all the bad press its getting. Its a good response, a fresh response, and reflects an inherent dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration’s approach to foreign policy–especially Iraq. It is in fact rather responsible to offer to talk to Iran, despite our obvious historical and policy differences, in order to make sense of the future of Iraq. Indeed, the very problem with Iraq is that no one has a clue “what the way forward would be” and Obama’s alternative is to suggest that perhaps talking with the Iranians might help improve the situation. Its a reasonable alternative and legitimate policy criticism of the Bush Administration.