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. Shea Anderson, San Diego, CA

    Senator Obama is correct in his decision to be willing to meet with the leaders of these other countries. How do we expect peace to come about if we are afraid to even communicate with these other countries. How does Senator Clinton expect to be able to become President, which consist of tryin to please a whole country, when she can't even please her husband. I liked Bill but just because he was a good president does not mean his wife will.

    July 25, 2007 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  2. Randy Brown, Famersville IL

    Hilary Clinton feels the U.S. gov't should not have relations with Chavez then how does she feel about buying oil from him?
    If the U.S. should not have relations with Cuba because Castro and communists seized control should the U.S. cut off relations with Communist China?

    July 25, 2007 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  3. Lauren, Iowa

    Ouch, That's now 4 – 0 for Obama. First it was the autralian prime minister, then Mc Cain, then Romney and now Clinton. They sent left jabs Obama's way and got knocked with a Right jab. Who's tougher now? He's definately a student in the Art of War, respect your opponents but don't be afraid to hit back if attacked.

    July 25, 2007 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  4. Bob Poodleman, Hartford, CT

    Hey, Hillary, we aren't in third grade anymore. Giving our enemies the silent treatment isn't the way to deal with them.

    July 25, 2007 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  5. Aaron, San Diego, CA

    I think this small episode shows the true colors of both candidates. Clinton is the consummate political animal, and will do little to change the inadequate status quo of U.S. foreign policy if she deems it a risk to her presidency. Obama spoke what he believed to be the truth, that the U.S. can only benefit from more diplomacy and communication. Maybe a little naivety is what we need in the White House.

    July 25, 2007 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  6. Z. McGhee, Carlsbad, Ca

    Mr. Obama, I think you ought to understand the difference of the meeting between Reagan and Gorbachov vs. your fancy meetings with Chavaz and Castro, let's forget about Kim Jong Il for a moment. Do you really believe you can change anything by meeting with these skunks?

    July 25, 2007 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  7. Eric King

    Hillary represents "Politics as usual" and that's why I've solidly been in the Obama camp since day one. She's a Clinton and another cog in the same old political machine that we are sick and tired of.

    I think people will be surprised at the outcome of the primaries. The CNN polls only show the opinion of "registered Democrats". Well gee! Don't you think that most "registered Democrats" are going lean towards Hillary and wherever their party tells them? My state doesn't require voters to be registered with a party to vote in the primaries. So be prepared to see a great deal of Obama support regardless of what any silly poll says.

    July 25, 2007 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  8. Jack, NV

    Clinton gave the political answer, business as usual. And this comes in the wake of her 'Change slogan' she unleashed in iowa. The same place she chastised Bush for not doing what Obama's answer advocated. Like we all know, if the 'frontrunner' attacks, they must be very desparate.

    July 25, 2007 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  9. Wolfram Weinberg

    It is naive to think that the strategically detailed question directed at Obama was not a setup and that Clinton hadn't rehearsed the answer. Obama is right, the Clinton campaign demonstrates politics as usual rather than change with this " nice fabricated controversy"

    July 25, 2007 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  10. Mark Wilmington, DE

    I liked the way Sen. Obama took responsibility for starting diplomatic relations with hostile nations. Sen. Clinton's answer seems like she's less concerned about this issue, which makes me think nothing will get done. Obama seems like he'll work to obtain diplomacy, while Clinton would rather sit on it, and wait for someone to do it for her

    July 25, 2007 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  11. Ed Monaghan, Rochester, Michigan

    I must agree with Mr. Obama and think we cannot ignore these countries. Mrs. Clinton, I am sorry to say, sounded very much like Mr. Bush and the rest of his failed foreign policy. Anyone who sounds like Mr. Bush will surely not get my vote and most other Americans. The best way is to treat a problem/illness and not ignore it. Hillary may have talked herself out of the election with her answer, I looked at my wife and she said: "Wow, if that is not Bush, I dont know who it is".

    July 25, 2007 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  12. Craig, Indianapolis IN

    one other point on this subject: i want to give a "wag of the finger" to CNN on this story. On AC360 last night they edited the answers into an exchange that was way more hostel then it played out at the actual debate when you listened to the whole answers. I know "raw politics" is undoubtably and fustratingly always off issue, but that was pretty yellow CNN.

    July 25, 2007 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  13. Shannon, La Crosse, WI

    I am very impressed with Mr. Obama. He does not follow the pack. He shows true leadership, integrity and a strong character. He approaches politics in a new way. I don't see him being swayed by lobbyist and the media like HC is. Her answers are always wht the audience wants to hear at that moment. I don;t feel she is genuine. I read a note that said Mr. Obama didn't have the experience. GWB had experience and has clearly shown that he is a poor leader. His experience and experienced advisors have not helped our country. Mr. Obama shows that he is a true leader.

    July 25, 2007 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  14. Wolfram Weinberg

    It is naive to think that the stretgically detailed question directed to Obama was not a setup and that Clinton hadn't rehearsed her answer. Obama is right that Clinton demonstrates politics as usual rather than change with this " nice fabricated controversy".

    July 25, 2007 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  15. Big Al, Chicago, IL

    My Uncle Sal always told me "Keep your friends close and youe enemies closer." Obama knows that too. Smart man.

    July 25, 2007 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  16. Sebastián, Buenos Aires, Argentina

    "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!!!
    Posted By John A. Saah, Bethesda, Maryland : July 25, 2007 11:17 am"

    There is, dear democrats, a problem with you. I'm following this from Argentina, and I really don't get how do you let special interests to divide you (eventhough being a progressive myself, I have seen many times how easily we fall on the right's traps).

    Both answers were good, both answers allowed us to see diferences in policy from the candidates, both took a thoughtful approach to the problem. Obama was willing to take more risks, and Hillary prefered caution and the use of established diplomatic channels (which is not certainly the same that republicans do, when they ignore professional diplomats in favor of their own private interests).

    The fact that Clinton uses this difference to play politics is not wrong, because she is campaigning on the issues, as is Obama. They are not attacking themselves on their private lives as the republicans are doing. You should all be proud (and stressing that pride) of all the candidates. All of them would make good presidents. Democrats are just discussing which of them would be a BETTER president.

    You should be energized and avoid all hostility. Like and respect your fellow democrats. Show you can have political difference without hate and mudslinging. Show democrats are the only option for the grown-up

    July 25, 2007 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  17. J.E. Hill, Jacksonville. FL

    Sen. Clinton only had one vote and it was not the deciding vote. Get over it.

    July 25, 2007 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  18. David, La Jolla California

    Being President is about having good judgment. Calling a refreshing and likable opponent irresponsible & naive is not showing good judgment. Name calling is unattractive & will turn off swing voters. Hillary has high personal negatives for a reason and Obama has momentum with crowds and money rasing for a reason. Personhood matters in elections. Voters buy based on emotion and then rationalize with facts. GWB beat McCain,Gore & Kerry as a likable cowboy outsider. Think about it.

    July 25, 2007 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  19. Kirk, Newport MN

    What's the point of talking to "leaders" of nations that have sworn to destroy the USA and our way of life. For the past 25 years prayers in Iran start and end with "Death to America" – Are we Americans really naive enough to believe that we can trust these "leaders" at their word, and not by their actions in the past? I pray we do not.

    July 25, 2007 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  20. Michael, Brooklyn, NY

    With respect to the charge that Sen. Clinton's campaign is playing a political game by manipulating Sen. Obama's answer as to whether he would be willing to meet with the leaders of nations we currently find unfavorable - yes, indeed the Clinton campaign is playing a political game. Presidential races ARE political games. What Clinton did was to provide a nuanced answer to a difficult question, to indicate how Obama may have thought through the question a bit too quickly thereby demonstrating his lack of experience, and to highlight the depth of her familiarity with international diplomacy – not to mention her keen debating skills and agility in playing the political game itself. Kudos to Clinton for that. I want someone leading this country who has such experience and skill.

    The question should be now whether such nuanced thinking is an electable trait. Remember Kerry 04? Alas, the majority of Americans tend not to elect candidates who demonstrate a complex thought process...

    July 25, 2007 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  21. Rick, Portland Oregon

    Obama would make us the United States of EuropeArabia!

    July 25, 2007 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  22. Ca, Ca

    Vote Republican... enough said. Do democrats really think Obama or Clinton are electable? Democrats best shot is Edwards and he is trailing far behind. In this tiny little debate though, I say Clinton came out on top, America wants a change for the better, not just change for the sake of change which is the stance Obama keeps taking.

    July 25, 2007 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  23. Vancouver, Canada

    I'm a Republican and am loving how you Dems have an uncanny ability to lose national elections. Please – oh pretty please – give us Hillary!

    July 25, 2007 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  24. Rob Charles, New York

    Hillary is a joke. If we elect a Clinto again it will be a sad day in the US. She is such a liar and hypocrite. I can't stand her.

    July 25, 2007 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  25. Wolfram Weinberg Redding CA

    It is naive to think that the strategically detailed question directed to Obama was not a setup and that Clinton hadn't rehearsed her answer. Obama is right that Clinton demonstrates politics as usual rather than change with this "nice fabricated controversy".

    July 25, 2007 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
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