July 25th, 2007
12:04 PM ET
7 years ago

Clinton, Obama mix it up over diplomacy answer

CNN’s Candy Crowley reports on the post debate spin.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - The question at Monday night's Democratic debate was straight forward: Should the next president of the United States sit down,without preconditions, with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea during his or her first year in office, in an effort to bridge the sharp divisions between those countries and the United States?

Sen. Barack Obama said yes. Hillary Clinton said no. And those responses set off a tempest Tuesday between their two campaigns that later escalated into some pointed comments from the candidates themselves in interviews with an Iowa newspaper.

"I thought it was irresponsible and, frankly, naive to say that he would commit to meeting with Chavez and Castro within the first year," Clinton told the Quad City Times, referring to the Venezuelan and Cuba leaders. "I think Senator Obama gave an answer that I believe he's regretting today."

But if Obama had regrets, they weren't evident in an interview he later gave the same newspaper, in which he called the episode "a nice fabricated controversy" and used some of his strongest language to date in criticizing Clinton's vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

"I do think it speaks to a larger point, which is if you want to talk about irresponsibility and naivete, look at her vote to authorize George Bush to send our troops into Iraq without an exit strategy and then asking the Pentagon what the plan is five years later," said Obama.

The question that launched the controversy, from a YouTube user in California, was directed at Obama, who flatly committed to meeting with Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Al-Assad if
he's elected in 2008.

"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," Obama said, sparking applause from the audience. "I think it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them."

The senator from Illinois noted that Cold War presidents such as Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy met with their Soviet counterparts, even at a time when Reagan famously denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

But when she was asked for her position on sitting down with leaders hostile to the United States, Clinton refused to take Obama's pledge, saying she thought it was not a good idea to "promise a meeting at that high of a
evel before you know what the intentions are."

"I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes," the senator from New York said. "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."

Another of other six candidates on the stage Tuesday night also answered the question - John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who is running behind Clinton and Obama in the polls. While he expressed a willingness to meet with the leaders, Edwards said he agreed with Clinton that "before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work - the diplomacy - so that the meeting is not going to be used for propaganda purposes."

The Clinton campaign pounced on the contrasting remarks between her and Obama, issuing a memo to reporters Tuesday touting her strength and experience and chiding Obama for committing to "presidential-level meetings with some of the world's worst dictators without preconditions during his first year in office."

The Obama campaign, in turn, issued its own statement accusing Clinton of flip-flopping, based on a comment she made in April that it was "a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people."

However, the Clinton campaign insisted there was no change of course, saying she was talking about diplomatic discussions, not necessarily presidential meetings. And to buttress the point, reporters were put on a conference call with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said Clinton's comments showed she had "a nuanced and sophisticated understanding" of how the diplomatic process works.

Albright, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in administration of Clinton's husband, traveled to North Korea in October 2000 to meet with Kim Jong Il, in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a presidential visit. But the meeting did not come off before Bill Clinton left office. Albright has endorsed Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy.

- CNN's Candy Crowley contributed to this report.

soundoff (143 Responses)
  1. LeftyLosey

    Old school vs New school

    Its time for a change.

    July 25, 2007 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  2. Richard, Highlands Ranch CO

    Well, I notice that in recent times, GWB took the same attitude that HC is espousing. I would think that we need to change our direction considering that America is regarded worldwide as a stumbling bully with a low intellect.

    July 25, 2007 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  3. Walt, Oklahoma City, OK

    "Are you willing to meet" is not the same as "do you promise to meet." First, they didn't answer the same question. Second, aren't they each right; one to be willing to talk to those who wish us harm, and the other to know what their intentions are in those talks? If we don't talk to them, we must inevitably fight them, or send our children to fight them. While their current intentions are self-evident, their intentions in specific discussions between their highest ranking leaders need clarification before engagement. I think Obama is correct in calling this a "fabricated controversy." Reminds me of Quemoy and Matsu in the '60s.

    July 25, 2007 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  4. Sean, Charlotte, NC

    totally agree with Obama. This whole business of not speaking to other political leaders is childish and, frankly, dangerous. We should keep an open dialogue with all nations, simply because that’s what a world leader should do. The contents of that dialogue may vary, depending on the nation, but open lines of communication is very important, as Obama pointed out. Clinton, on the other hand, will say whatever her advisors tell her is popular at that particular point in time.

    July 25, 2007 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  5. Don Collins, Greenville, NC

    Writing as a person who could support Hilary Clinton for president, she did not answer the question asked, but Barak Obama did answer it as asked. It was not "promise," as Clinton says, but "willing," which is how Obama answered. The idea that you don't talkt to enemies means that there can be no progress with them. Hilary seemed to be playing politics and trying to gain points, rather than give a a truly thoughtful response. If Clinton keeps up with that line of thinking, she will lose support.

    July 25, 2007 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  6. Chris , St.louis, MO

    Mr. Obama .. what has one got to do with the other.
    Your answer to the question was naive.
    To try to equate that with what Ms. Clinton (and a majority of Democrats) did five years back is also, in my opinion .. naive.
    I would respectfully suggest that, at this point in time, you Sir are not ready to lead this country

    July 25, 2007 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  7. Sam Brooks, Baghdad Iraq

    I think that this story cuts to the heart of what is wrong with our government and it's current standing with the rest of the world. The current administration since it's early days took a unilateral approach even before 9-11. Now it's as if it operates completely out of fear. It seems as if they want Americans to remain scared so they can remain in office. The same holds true for Clinton. She's looking, searching, almost frantically for anything that will keep Obama at bay.

    The bottom line is America has been in dire need of BOLD new leadership in the twenty-first Century. All we've had is the same old politicians preaching the same old political sound-bites that have undermined this country's moral fabric as well as it's standing as a world leader. Obama could be the first American President of the the new age that is truly representative of America.

    July 25, 2007 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  8. Dave Purohit, Charlotte. NC

    With repect I did not find any thing wrong in Mr. Obama's answer. If we show the good will our meeting will have a very good chance of achiving the goal if one shows on my term only than our enemeies are going to be less interested to come forward, that is what is at present.

    July 25, 2007 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  9. Kay, Washington DC

    Go Hillary Go!!!

    July 25, 2007 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  10. chris

    Obama needs to get some idea of how things work in the world. If every president starts off his foreign policy agenda with a clean slate, just what would be the motivation for a tyrant (who doesn't have to face reelection) to negotiate with an adminsitration with which he disagrees. He could simply wait for the next guy who might be more amenable. With Chavez and Castro it isn't just about Bush since both of them predate the Bush administration. Hint to Obama, there has to be some continuity to our nations foreign policy as administrations change. Otherwise, long term issues which extend past the current administration would never be effectively handled. Sorry, but Obama just doesn't have the experience for the job.

    July 25, 2007 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  11. James Atlanta, GA

    The powers of the Executive are very limited when it comes to domestic matters. Every action taken by the president in constrained by Congress and the Surpreme Court. In the international arena, it is an entirely different story. Presidents have full authority over the nations military and foreign policy agencies. An assertive president can easily pursue their own foreign policy agenda with a minimum of outside interference from the rest of the government.

    That said, it is very significant that the majority of individuals who have experience in foreign matters are coming out against Sen. Obama's response to the YouTube question. It is one thing to be idealistic and visionary; it is another thing to be this country's nexy Jimmy Carter. Though I am not a fan Sen. Clinton, I have to admit that her answer showed insights into the complexity of international relations. That knowledge is, so far, lacking in Sen. Obama's foreign policy statements. He can preach against Bush's policies all he wants, but let's not try to repeat his actions to the point that we reject doctrines that have served this country well before he was ever elected.

    July 25, 2007 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  12. Dalton, Detroit, MI

    I think the majority of American have come to realize that the isolation approach to dealing with nations we don't like is counterproductive and they want someone who is willing to engage our adversaries in a responsible and strong manner.

    Hillary Clinton is trying to reinforce the image that she is tough enough to be president but that focus on toughness without pragmatism is the root foundation of the Bush policy of isolating countries like Iran and Syria which was recently reversed after it was realized we need them to stabilize Iraq.

    As for Castro and Chavez, they both have huge support in the African American community because of their support for Assatt Shakur and discounted home heating oil.

    Hillary is becoming a political robot programmed to give the answers her inside the beltway advisers tell her to give without much understanding of how real Americans feel

    July 25, 2007 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  13. Brian, San Diego CA

    What Obama is doing is living without fear. At some point, we must act. We can't wait for the political pundits or critics to give us our blessings before making an appropriate move.

    What Hillary is suggesting is that we wait until after the polls come out to make a policy decision. Why not just use a sailboat to determine which direction our country is going in?

    July 25, 2007 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  14. Debo, Baltimore, MD

    I think Obama is right on target. This is indeed a fabricated controversy. In addition, Hillary's smugness in her answer is no different than the Bush administration. If Hillary would be elected, I would expect the U.S. to be even further isolated from the world due to lack of diplomacy. Obama is the only realistic chance we have in this country to reclaim any kind of moral standing in the world.

    July 25, 2007 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  15. Sandy Carey, Sacramento, CA

    Big Mistake, Hillary! This is precisely the sort of flawed judgment that will keep many of us (who WANT to support you!) from doing so in the final analysis. I suspect some campaign idiot made the choice for this comment, but your gut should have told you "no."

    July 25, 2007 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  16. AKron, Oh

    ...Haha, that's funny Obama. Considering your voting record is IDENTICAL to Sen Clinton's, I'm having a hard time if you had been in the Senate at the time of the vote, you'd have voted differently.

    Yea right.

    July 25, 2007 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  17. Rose Hillrose, Chicago, IL

    Simple. Obama was bammed by Clinton. Period. Did anyone see Obama's reaction when Clinton was responding? His face froze and just wanted her to end her response, asap. That hammer fell so hard that Obama remained zombied for the rest of the debate.

    July 25, 2007 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  18. Sherri, Washington, D.C.

    Clinton's answer did indeed illustrate her "sophisticated understanding" of diplomacy and Obama's "not so sophisticated understanding" of diplomacy.

    Hands down.

    Obama's talk of Clinton's vote on authorizing the invasion of Iraq is valid but is beginning to seem overused.

    July 25, 2007 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  19. Julie, Caldwell, NJ

    Substantively, I'm not sure that Senator Clinton gave a better answer. She spoke more authoritatively, and did her best to destroy her opponent, but I think her answer merely representated the democratic lack of pragmatism. She declared that she would "not be used for propaganda", but I'm not even sure what that is supposed to mean. My friends and I sat watching the debate wondering what she was trying to say. She took the easy answer, condemning poor leaders that dislike America, and playing on the ethnocentrism of many American viewers. I think it was politically risky for Senator Obama to outright say that he would visit with these leaders in his first year. He went out on a limb. However, I disagree that Senator Clinton made him look foolish. Yes, her tone was overcoming, but in the end I have to ask, what was her actual point?

    July 25, 2007 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  20. Lyn, Rockville MD

    Oh Hillary for someone with so much "experience" that comment was a "rookie" mistake. "Slap Down", back at you. That decision was about life and death and yes it was at best niave and at worst calculating (politically) to assume that Bush would do anything except what he did. Afterall she has said over and over she "thought he would blah, blah, blah....

    July 25, 2007 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  21. Tom Dedham, Mass

    Hillary Talks Tough On Iran, But Open To Talks
    Here’s Senator Clinton:

    Calling Iran a danger to the U.S. and one of Israel’s greatest threats, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said “no option can be taken off the table” when dealing with that nation.

    But Clinton, a top 2008 Democratic presidential contender, also called for a dialogue with countries hostile to Israel – including Iran and Syria – as a way to promote peace in the Middle East.

    “I have advocated engagement with our enemies and Israel’s enemies,” Clinton told a crowd of Israel supporters on Thursday. “I believe we can gain valuable knowledge and leverage from being part of a process again that enables us to get a better idea of how to take on and defeat our adversaries.”

    Clinton, D-N.Y., spoke at a Manhattan dinner held by the nation’s largest pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

    “U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal: We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons,” Clinton told the audience. “In dealing with this threat … no option can be taken off the table.”

    Great, more "nuanced" thinking from a leading Democrat (see Kerry) as that is a buzz word for talking out of both sides of ones mouth.

    Busk get's hammered by her and others from the party for not talking to these evil bastards as they have flat out said that their goal is nukes and destroying the US and Israel etc, etc, so he as usual genuflects to them and they in turn hammer him for NOW TALKING TO THEM.

    This country is only going to get worse as this political discourse is going to kill us.

    July 25, 2007 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  22. Erick Graubard, Tampa Florida

    Again, a perfect example of why Hillary should not be president. We are tired of politicians that want to have a pre-meeting to discuss a meeting for another meeting and so on... ACTION is what's needed, not talk talk talk

    July 25, 2007 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  23. Aaron Lucero Dallas, Texas

    I just want to ask: How long has Obama been in politics? Exactly he knows nothing. He's a young freshman Senator that needs to get more exp. before he tries to run the country!!!! GO Clinton GO!!!

    July 25, 2007 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  24. Craig, Indianapolis IN

    when i watched the debate it was pretty clear after everyone answered (and before the question was even asked for people that know anything about foriegn policy) that you lay groundwork before having a meeting between world leaders.

    both answers were good and in reality ment the same thing. the only reason
    clinton even make those distinctions was because she answered after obama and saw an opening to make obama look sophmoric.

    I don’t blame her for that in the debate, but to come out with this afterward is a stretch, and it looks low on Clinton’s part to anyone who actually listened to the answers.

    July 25, 2007 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  25. Frank, Chicago, Illinois

    Hillary is what is wrong with politics. Keep doing business the old fashion way and when it does not work wonder why. Obama is a breath of fresh air and should be commended for it.

    July 25, 2007 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
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