July 25th, 2007
12:04 PM ET
4 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. John A. Saah, Bethesda, Maryland

    Anyone with a brain will see and understand that Hillary Clinton is very pro-war and very anti-diplomacy. This is completely identical to the Republicans and the neo-cons!

    I hope fair-minded and reasonable people in America wake up and see that we need a dramatically new course in our nation's path forward. Unlike the very negative militaristic views held by Hillary, Obama is in favor of making America the shining beacon of the world once again, just as it was for many decades.

    Hillary is such a fake!!!

    July 25, 2007 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  2. Phil, Ames IA

    This shows the difference between the two canidates. Hilary has a better understanding of "how things are done" in Washington, while Obama has a better understanding of "how things should be done." Hilary would have more internal control while Obama would be better at international politics. Take your pick.

    July 25, 2007 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  3. Alex, New York

    Clinton is simply more of the same. It's an effort to assert difference between what she and the other leading candidate would do. Trust me if Obama had said he wouldn't meet with the mentioned leaders then she would have said she would meet with them. She proved that she is indeed an experienced politician. Which simply means that she can spew out crap and avoid real issues with the best of them. Way too much is being read into this one issue. Ask the average American wether they care more about meeting or not meeting with Castro then they do about not being able to go have that operation that will save their life because they don't have health insurance.

    July 25, 2007 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  4. Bobbi Jo Weber, Louisville, KY

    Our nation is witnessing the damage a person with little experience can cause while sitting in the Oval Office. Obama's talent is public speaking, not public service. Give me a brillant woman who can lead over a guy who gives brillant speeches anyday.

    Bobbi Jo Weber
    Louisville, KY

    July 25, 2007 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  5. Robert Cadalso, NYC, Miami

    You guys are making too much of this.

    Hillary said she would first send diplomats to test the water. I think Obama is great, but does not have the experience that Hillary has.

    I do agree we need to speak with everyone, but there are ways of doing things.

    I am with Hillary on this.

    July 25, 2007 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  6. Ken - Dallas, Tx

    Mr. Obama is a great communicator – because he said that he is willing to sit down and talk with these leaders is simply saying that he's willing to establish a communication dialogue to try and work out our differences. It's not likes he's saying let's be best buddies.

    July 25, 2007 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  7. Erik, New York

    Obama was right! He wasn’t saying he would open the door to anyone at any time. The reality for all of the arrogant Americans out there is we exist on this planet with other countries that have different beliefs and point of views than ours. Isn’t this the reason why we live in such a great country in the first place? To respect others and come to some common ground for the greater good? Least we forget we have done our dirt too! A little reminder: The bible says those without sin cast the first stone! America do you remember: Indentures servitude, African slavery and Manifest Destiny that killed millions of Native American, Irish and Jewish Oppression, The Mexican War, The Civil War, Jim Crow, Japanese Confinement Camps, Macarthyism, Vietnam, The Cold War, oh and ahh…IRAQ!

    A real president/leader has to reach out to different countries around the world, which is sometimes ruled by a few difficult leaders. This has been true through out human existence. I’m sure many countries see us as difficult right about now. This doesn’t mean that their or our policies won’t ever change. We are hoping for change aren’t we? Regan, Lincoln, Washington, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. all reached out. The fact of the matter is we are all connected and we ARE our brother’s keeper. America is a melting pot of cultures and families in different countries. Do we close the door of discussion with our neighbors, families and friends? Giving peace and understanding a chance is not a sign of weakness or in experience Mrs. Clinton and the Republican baby boomers. It’s a sign of wisdom and true character. May God bless America and Obama in 2008!

    July 25, 2007 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  8. Lcarr

    Dennis Kucinich is the only Dem worth voting for.

    July 25, 2007 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  9. Steve Tocci E.Williston, NY

    Hillary may not be right often, but she's right this time. Contrary to what her supporters say, however, there's nothing "sophisticated" about her understanding of the matter. It's simple common sense. One need only examine Richard Nixon's China initiative to recognize that certain agreements are made and conditions laid with hostile nations before our President enters such discussions. Hillary also has the advantage of having witnessed her husband's foolish peace initiative in 2000 with Arafat (hostile) and Barak (lacking prior agreements), which not only failed, but kicked off another round of hostilities in the middle east.

    July 25, 2007 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  10. David Leclerc Topsham, Maine

    Unconditional access to this nation's President to outspoken enemies of our country is beyond irresponsible. It is not enough that these enemies meet with the President but also that they listen. There is no gain for us to give these people a voice in the ear of our President unless we know that they will also listen to what comes out of the mouth of our President. Hence this thing called diplomacy before a meeting happens.
    It disturbes me most that we Americans take polar opposite views of these answers to a question that uses the word, 'unconditional,' as if the answer, no, automatically means that under no condition will the President meet with these people. The answer, no, simply means, in this case, that there would be conditions.
    What should be said to Mr. Obama is this, "Shame on you for so recklessly approaching something so important." What should be asked of Mrs. Clinton is this, "Under what conditions would you meet with these people?"

    July 25, 2007 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  11. Bruce, Franklin, TN

    They both said they were willing to meet with these leaders. It's just that Hillary's answer had the proper nuance to it and that's what made her answer more "presidential."

    I will not be voting for either of these candidates, but I think it's important to note how important experience is in these matters. Obama, while charismatic to many, just does not have enough experience (in my opinion) to lead our country in these difficult times.

    July 25, 2007 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  12. Jessica, Michigan

    They're both correct. Listen, you can't cut hostile countries off completely because then you have no talking, no communication and ultimately no idea what's going on in their minds. So yes, our leaders must meet with their leaders, but as Sen. Clinton said, it should be with clear agendas so that we aren't made to look the fool.

    By the way, Sen. Obama, you were not in congress at the time of the vote for authorization of troops, so blaming Hillary for voting yes is completely trite. We as a voting populus have no idea how you would've voted. Also, the power and people's backing at that time was completely in favor of authorization. Be real.

    July 25, 2007 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  13. JD, Westminster, CO

    Interesting. Obama thinks it was foolish to send troops to Iraq "without an exit strategy". I wonder, did we have an exit strategy at the outset of any other war in history? Methinks not so much WWII.

    July 25, 2007 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  14. Jay, Tulsa OK

    Simply put I like them both, to add to that, they both have great points. She states that she would like to know the intentions of the meeting, however; to stat that he would not is ridiculous. Please tell me when in history has a president met with anyone without knowing anything about the agenda. These debates often ask questions without enough time to actually fully answer the question. To squash all the negative rhetoric that is being blamed on either candidate....should we have high level meetings with countries that are hostile to the USA, absolutely, we need to understand the why's behind the hostility, and utilize diplomacy to try and correct the issues. We all should know that the last eight years of "I do what I want, when I want, how I want" and “if you don’t play how I want to play I am going to take my ball and go home” does not work. Need I mention that isolationism is something of the past and history has taught us a valuable lesson on that....

    Next question please….

    July 25, 2007 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  15. IF Colorado

    Clinton gave a bureaucratically correct answer which demonstrates her status quo approach to a political system in turmoil. Also, Clinton re-qualified the question from an intention to meet to an obligation to meet with questionable foreign leaders. Also, Clinton added merely one variable, of which there are infinite, about exercising caution. I rolled my eyes when I heard her answer, before any mud slinging began.

    The argument the Obama is inexperienced and idealistic is a breath of fresh air. I welcome change in this political system (lies, fear, and special interests) I have growing contempt for more than I welcome some false sense of security gleaned from business as usual.

    Despite all this, I will vote for Clinton if Obama is not nominated.

    July 25, 2007 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  16. Bruce, Franklin, TN

    JD you're right. In wartime the exit strategy is to vanquish your foe and make sure they don't threaten you in the future. Then you can leave.

    Chilabi and all the other Iraqi expatriates were promising us we'd be welcomed as liberators. We were naive to believe them and we didn't put enough boots on the ground to secure the peace after the initial invasion. I think much of the blame for the mess in Iraq has to fall on Rumsfeld. This could have turned out differently.

    July 25, 2007 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  17. Mary, Beaver, PA

    Dalton, your last paragraph says it all. Hillary Clinton is the candidate "they" (the media and the Washington establishment) want for the Democratic presidential nominee. Obama is right: After voting for the war in Iraq in the first place, Clinton asks four years later whether we have an exit strategy. This shows you what a phoney she is. She was for the war as long as it was popular and never bothered to ask the hard questions then. Now that the war hasn't brought about the desired consequences, she has the nerve to criticize.

    Any candidate who has Establishment and mainstream media support should be viewed with extreme skepticism.

    July 25, 2007 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  18. Frank, Orlando, FL

    It is sad that Obama always goes back to Hillary's vote on the war. Bush made the entire country scared about Iraq and based on that her vote was right. We learned later that the truth was not told.

    Give it up Obama. We want 8 mores years of Billy. The BEST President we have had since Kennedy.

    July 25, 2007 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  19. Walter, Chicago IL

    Barack makes a valid point, it was naive of Hillary and all that vote for the war to think that the American military would go into Iraq defeat Saddam and the Iraqi army and the citizens would be celebrating the Americans coming to liberate them. They probably budgeted for ice cream, cake and punch in the first funding for the war.

    Obviously they voted for the war without any understanding of the impact that the different ethnic Muslim would have, the hostile neighbors that border Iraq. Clinton as well other Dems and Repubs were very naive in how they thought the war would go.

    As for meeting with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, NK, etc. Obama was right to cite that Reagan met with Gorby to diffuse and end the cold war.

    Clinton looks like more of the same and Obama looks like the face of change a change this government needs.

    July 25, 2007 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  20. Ryan Provo,UT

    “I thought it was irresponsible and, frankly, naive to say that he would commit to meeting with Chavez and Castro within the first year,”

    This is a flat out lie. Obama did not "commit to meet" with anyone. He said he would be willing to. And my understanding was that the question was within the first term, not the "first year".

    Hillary is literally spinning lies to discredit Obama. Where's Anderson Cooper "Keeping them honest" on this one? Hillary will say anything to get elected. I

    July 25, 2007 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  21. C Irwin

    We need another Clinton to improve our diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Having lived overseas I have seen how the rest of the world appreciated Bill Clinton's foreign policies and diplomatic work. I trust that Hillary Clinton will continue what her husband had started. We need to salvage America's reputation. Diplomacy & experience will be significant post-Bush era.

    July 25, 2007 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  22. John Housto, Texas

    Hillary agreed she would follow Bush's policy. send a bunch of minions all around the world and get nothing accomplished.Kennedy went to Berlin,Nixen to China, Reagon to Moscow
    Obama would follow in their footsteps.
    Hillary in Bush's

    July 25, 2007 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  23. Ivan E. Nunez, Minneapolis, MN

    Mrs. Clinton is correct. There is a huge difference between making diplomatic efforts and having a presidential summit.

    I think irrational leaders such as Chavez or Kim Jon will use a presidential meeting to advance their own totalitarian agendas. They would present such meeting as the US validating their policies.

    July 25, 2007 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  24. Thomas, Atlanta GA

    If I had to choose between Clinton and Obama, Clinton would prevail. She has the depth of experience and grasp of nuance in Executive governmental management necessary to be an effective President. That said, I do not agree with her politics at all. But anyone who thinks that Obama is electable, is living in la-la land. It's almost laughable.

    July 25, 2007 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  25. leslie ungar, akron ohio

    As a Communication Coach, I don't think it was about this one question or any one question. Technology Won. Pundits can argue over this one question, the validity of YouTube or the format of the taped questions, but the updated use of technology was the clear cut winner over one candidate or one question.

    Technology will continue to revolutionize elections as TV did
    in the Kennedy – Nixon debates. Candidates, are you ready?

    July 25, 2007 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
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