The Foreign Leaders Kerfuffle: Why Obama's Gaffe Shouldn't Matter

I don't understand why Barack Obama is taking so much flak for saying that he'll meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea if elected president.

It would make sense if his critics were arguing that an American president shouldn't talk to rogue leaders. But his critics aren't saying that.

If you missed the YouTube debate, I'm referring to the kerfuffle over this 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?

Here is how Obama answered:

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. 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.

Ever since Hillary Clinton has been criticizing Obama for being inexperienced and naive. But look at her answer to the same question:

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.

When I look at those answers, the substance seems almost identical. I see two candidates who agree in principle that it's better to engage rogue leaders than to refuse to talk to them... and one candidate who added the caveat that it's important, before a president talks to a rogue leader, to make sure the exchange won't be used for propaganda purposes.

I suppose one could believe that Obama, who didn't add that caveat, doesn't mind if he's used for propaganda purposes, and won't take precautions to prevent that.

But that's a pretty outlandish thing to believe, isn't it?

Unfortunately our campaign coverage, rather than clarify the substance of the candidates positions after an exchange like that, focuses on the political point scoring that goes on.

What would I do differently?

"Did you assume the caveat that Senator Clinton articulated, or do you disagree with her?" is the question the moderator, or the press corps, should have asked.

Instead the AP pumps out a story titled "Obama Debate Comments Set Off Firestorm" -- a bit overwrought, no? -- a dispatch that includes this paragraph:

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, circulated a memo by Obama spokesman Bill Burton saying Obama's response to the question had played well with focus groups and that Clinton had changed her position on the subject - a claim her campaign denied.

Telling, no? The Obama campaign is releasing focus group data because they know at root that the press isn't focused on the substance or merits of his position, they're interested in divining whether or not he made a gaffe that will hurt him in the horse race.

Framing the story that way forces reporters to act like credulous idiots as they file their work. They don't think Obama and Clinton really disagree on the substance any more than you or I do.

Meanwhile commentator David Corn pens this absurdly credulous statement at The Nation:

I can see the ad now: Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Bashar al-Assad, and Hugo Chavez all strolling into the White House, and a grinning Barack Obama greeting them with a friendly "Welcome, boys; what do you want to talk about?"

If Obama gets close to the Democratic presidential nomination, pro-Hillary Clinton forces could air such an ad. If he wins the nomination, the Republicans could hammer him with such a spot.

And the junior senator from Illinois will not have much of a defense.


I think he'd have an excellent defense: that he'd neither invite those men to the White House, particularly as a five-some, nor greet them with a smile, nor invite them to dictate the terms of discussion.

Given the way that campaigns are covered in America Obama's statement definitely qualifies as a gaffe, and Clinton's rejoinder as a shrewd maneuver to take advantage of it. But we'd do better to focus on the substance of candidate positions rather than whether or not they happen to shield themselves against criticism by articulating caveats that they almost certainly believe anyway.