July 25th, 2007
12:04 PM ET
3 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. louis Roundtree, Phoenix, Az.

    Clinton took the opportunity to throw a zinger out at Obama, that was on her agenda for the debate. Plain and simple, the ONLY thing that anyone can point to is Obama's lack of Washington Experience. She would have taken an opposing position and called him naive at some point in this debate. He offered a change to the status quo that IS NOT WORKING! To even set up such meetings legwork would need to be done. All of the pundits know this, but they over simplify the situation to make for a better story. Invite these men to the Whitehouse for talks. Use the power and position of the Presidency to push a foreign policy that says we will not tolerate state supported terrorism. And propoganda, pleae in this world of the instant news cycle what is NOT used for propoganda? You remember your little accent slip Hills? Every story is spun for propoganda by the politicos, any meeting would be used for propoganda on both sides no matter what diplomacy is applied. the whole point of diplomacy is to negotiate so both sides can at least appear to come out ahead and be able to sell the compromise to thier people. So Hills says we stay the course and Obama says we need to make a change to get to where we want to go, who is being naive?

    July 25, 2007 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  2. Sat, West Chester PA

    "Keeps my friends close, but my enemies even closer". Obama hits it right on the head, the US cannot be a world power while being selective in who we should have dialogues with. The 'go it alone' attitude got us to where we are...this must change. Syria is a perfect example of missed opportunity.

    July 25, 2007 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  3. Evan Esteves, Boca Raton, FL

    I wonder what all you Hillary backers are going to do when Obama wins the nomination. Probably vote for Mitt Romney I guess.

    July 25, 2007 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  4. AnaMaria

    The Clinton royal family denigrates Obama for being naive... The Clinton brigade has a short term memory.
    1. Mrs. Clinton was very unctious and fawned over the Arafat and his wife... How blatantly transparent she used to be...remember.
    2. Mr. Clinton said he did not "inhale" and he thought Americans and foreigners were naive and stupid...
    3. Mrs Clinton blamed her husband's sexual escapades on the "right conspiracy." How naive of her...
    4. The Clinton brigade felt it was okay to have Elian Gonzalez's dad,a member of the Cuban communist party, stay as a guest in US military officers' quarters.
    5. The Clinton brigade thought it was great to send Elian back to Cuba to live under the rule of a communist dictator.
    6. Mr. Clinton did very little against terrorist groups. Remember?

    July 25, 2007 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  5. Ivan, CO

    In my opinion Hillary's answer was simply political rhetoric. If Obama is "willing" to meet with our adversaries don't you think Obama, or any other candidate for that matter, and their administration would assess the matter and prepare substantially?

    Obama is right this is just "a nice fabricated controversy"

    July 25, 2007 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  6. B Williams, Bethlehem PA

    Are Clinton and Obama the only ones running on the Democratic ticket? One would think so, according to the media. While it is obvious a few candidates are the "William Hungs" of the primary, media coverage of the two debates so far have focused mainly on these two candidates. Okay, we get it: a woman or an African American could be the leader of the free world, which is amazing less than a hundred years ago, neither could vote in this country. Maybe the others should try out for American Idol to get some publicity based strictly on performance.

    July 25, 2007 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  7. Don - Athens, IL

    Mrs. Clinton's intention that we should continue the same tired course of action is evidence why she should not be elected.

    I think most people are fed up of politics as usual, and its not as if a "meeting" comits the United States to any particular course of action.

    As for the notion that any such meeting would be used as propoganda, I'd say a refusal to meet can just as easily be used as propoganda. If anything, such a refusal might be more damaging to the U.S., as it could be seen as a national insult. At least with a meeting, you have the potential that SOMETHING might get done.

    July 25, 2007 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  8. Bryce, Kansas City

    For all of the talk of Obama's lack of experience, it's not that Hillary has tons more. She's got a few years of being a senator on him. That's it.

    She may have lived in the White House, and she may have watched what it's like to be President. However, at the end of the day, watching and doing are very different things. I could go watch a guy at NASA build a rocket, but it doesn't mean that I could necessarily do it.

    It's also interesting what a big deal people are making about them meeting with hostile foreign leaders. If we agree to meet with them without precondition, then we're not necessarily offering anything. Nor are the foreign leaders. Essentially, it's world leaders coming together to talk. I think many are anticipating a lot of specific concessions from the US without anything in return. Both Clinton and Obama have backgrounds in the legal world, so I don't see that happening.

    July 25, 2007 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  9. Erik

    October 31, 2006, Council of Foreign Affairs:

    “Direct negotiations (with Iran and Syria) are not a sign of weakness; they are a sign of leadership…The Bush Administration refuses to talk to anyone on the evil side, as some have call that idealistic, but I call it dangerously unrealistic.”

    June 27, 2007, the Center for a New American Security:

    “The Bush administration has given Iran six years of the silent treatment…In this vacuum, Tehran continues its progress toward developing nuclear weapons and increasing its influence in the region…After initial talks with Iran and Syria on Iraq, the administration says it isn’t sure that we need any more discussions with either of them. I think we should keep talking.”

    –Hillary Clinton

    FLIP FLOP! I say!

    July 25, 2007 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  10. Dave, Detroit, MI

    This is trite, petty, and a fine example of how the art of politics can take the place of common sense. I'm sorry–did Barack Obama sign something to commit himself as would-be president to meet with these people? Is Hillary Clinton suggesting that a candidate can't or won't act contrary to pre-election statements if current conditions warrant it after election? Does she honestly believe that we find sincerity in her statement? Shoot–I think we've all seen candidates-turned-elected officials change positions for far less justified reasons.
    This is ridiculous that this argument should be published. I won't offer full support to either side, but I enjoyed Barack Obama's response in which he pointed out Hilary's own change of position (assuming the statement is accurate) from not long ago.

    July 25, 2007 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  11. Indian, NY, NY

    If we want the World to change their outlook on America from the way it is now, we need a change in leadership. I am talking about going with New School. It means not only a new vigor and a new way of running the Presidential office of the most influential nation, but also a total change in world perception about US diplomacy with rest of the world.

    July 25, 2007 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  12. Jess, Madisonville, KY

    OBAMA is ready to take action, get in there, roll up his sleeves and fix what's wrong with America today.

    Clinton is ready to keep us isolated and frightened.. her answer for this question proves she's no different than what we have now with BushCo.

    OBAMA was right on!!! He's making a brave stand and trying to make this nation great... as it once was!!

    July 25, 2007 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  13. Indian, NY, NY

    I think lack of experience in this case is an advantage. Because if Obama is elected his judgments don't come from same old rusty standardized methods but from pure Logic super imposed over expert advice from the President's Panel of Political Advisors based on current and changing world political landscape.

    July 25, 2007 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  14. HAWK, TX.

    HILLARY IS RIGHT, YOU DO NOT DIVE IN A POND OF WATER WITHOUT KNOWING HOW DEEP IT IS.OBAMA LACKS EXPERINCE PEROID.

    July 25, 2007 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  15. sean samis, wauwatosa, wi

    This is a "pah tay toe"/"pah tah toe" debate. The question was, would the candidates BE WILLING to meet WITHOUT PRECONDITION with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea.

    Obama's answer was the equivalent of "I would, and this is why ..." while HRC's answer was the equivalent of "I won't promise to and this is why..."

    So, in point of fact, HRC didn't answer the question, she wasn't asked if she'd PROMISE to, but if she was WILLING to meet.

    HRC' concerns are valid, but in mentioning them, she was dancing around the question.

    Edwards, having the opportunity to hear both Obama's and HRC's prior answers, was able to give a more complete answer; the equivalent of "Yes, but with these considerations ...".

    At the end of the day, a President is not just the Neighbor-in-Chief, so meeting with anyone with no agenda is a waste of time. Presidents have better things to do than go talking over the fence to the country next door. That's what Ambassadors are for.

    HRC's concerns remain valid, but they are easily addressed; there is no reason meaningful and productive meetings with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea could not be arranged.

    sean s.

    July 25, 2007 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  16. Chris, seattle WA

    I just get tired of the Obama camp always making reference to Senator Clinton authorised the invasion of Iraq when Mr Obama did something naive and inexperience. Senator Clinton was given misleading information and that lied to her decision to authorise the war. On the other hand, Mr Obama was not even in the Senate at that time, he could claim whatever he wants to as hide sight is 20/20. I think he will be more a man if he admits that he is inexperienced and made naive comment that may jeopardise at a presidental level and as a result to our country, during the recent debate. Mr Obama you are just simply not ready to lead our country. You are saying what your advicers telling you too and are equally calculated as other politicians you fire at.

    July 25, 2007 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  17. Shahidah, Rockville, MD

    Obama's "nativity" is exactly what America needs. The Clinton's have been in public office too long, it's time for change. America's founding fathers did not intend for one FAMILY after another to continuously rule (no matter how much experience they may have).

    Look at the mess the BUSH family has gotten American into. Obama thus far is about the only one that breaths new life into American Politics as usual.

    Those who wish to see a WOMAN in office are ill served by that notion. Had the woman been someone new (not from a former ruling FAMILY) I would agree because CHANGE is what's needed if America is to survive.

    Finally, not talking to so called enemy countries is what got America into the mess in the Middle East. I believe the Middle East crisis could have been avoided if only American Politicians had the WILL to fight special interest groups and not allow them to dictate American Foreign Policy.

    Truth be told AMERICA will need about 100 Obama's to sort out the mess she's in.

    July 25, 2007 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  18. EDEN, MISSION TEXAS

    OBAMA MUST GET OVER THE WHOLE VOTING TO SEND TROOPS TO IRAQ THING, HE USES THIS LINE FOR ANYTHING SEN. CLINTON SAYS. I WOULD SUGGEST TO HIM TO START WORRYING ABOUT THE PICTUER IN THE FUTUER RATHER THAN THE PAINTING IN THE PAST. SEN. CLINTON UNLIKE OBAMA, DEFENDS HERSELF FROM HER OPPONENTS ON A MORE POLITICAL STATAGIE, LIKE TOUCHING ON ISSUES THAT THE OPPONENTS TALKS ABOUT ON HAND, RATHER THAN THE DECISONS THEY TOOK IN THE PAST. WHATS IS OBAMAS EXIT STRATAGIE WHEN THE CUBAN MILLITARY KIDNAPS HIM FOR GOING INTO CUBA WITH NO PRE CONDITIONS?

    GO HILLARY

    July 25, 2007 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  19. Maria Paracha, Pembroke Pines, FL

    Presidents are not middle school kids who would not talk to other people when they're mad at them. These types of problems need to be discussed and solved instead of letting the problem stay there by not talking. Obama is right in taking a stand to talk and Clinton is right in knowing the intentions. I don't think that Obama would go to a meeting without knowing the reason why it's held and that should've been understood instead of making it a big issue

    July 25, 2007 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  20. John, Denver CO

    Hillary out-classed you on this one, Barack. You're reaction shows you agree.
    I still won't vote for such a liberal, tax-happy candidate such as Hillary.
    Never in a million years!

    July 25, 2007 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  21. M. Forseth, Madison, WI

    Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

    Obama nailed the question.

    The Bush administration has vilified America in the eyes of too many nations with this president's imperialist and dictatorial approach to domestic and foreign affairs. I say, get out there and communicate with the world, lest we become isolated.

    July 25, 2007 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  22. Independent Voter, Anywhere,USA

    If I were to pick a Dem candidate right now, it would be Joe Biden. I know he has a reputation for being a blowhard, but at least most of what he says is "no spin."

    Hillary and Obama are both trying so hard to get elected, that they are trying to be everything to everybody and you can't believe a word they say.

    July 25, 2007 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  23. timmy dallas tx

    Hillary was guilty of the same kind of typically political double talk we've had far too much of. She tries to spin her way out of being nothing more than a politician, but Obama speaks up and gives a square answer to the question. Obama is right on in questioning Hillary's record, which did give Bush a blank check. She's the one who used the FBI to spy on her political enemies and her husband's administration was not free from civil rights abuses, either. Obama is willing to state ideas and is a fresh face. I am interested in what he's said. Hillary's record is questionable, because she represents the same sort of tongue twisting and two stepping we've had far to much of. As far as bombs, Kucinich has bombed her six ways to sunday and her response is not to deal with his issues, but to conspire to exclude his truthful analyses when she thinks no one is listening.

    July 25, 2007 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  24. George, NYC NY

    I am not a Democrat, but I really hope Edwards or Obama takes the vote. I really don't like the clintons.

    On another note... Did anyone see the bill Bush put through where he can call off a presidential election if our country is under terrorist attack. Thus enabling him to remain in office if we are attacked next year?

    July 25, 2007 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  25. Tom, Mission Viejo, CA

    Diplomacy solved Darfur. Talking also stopped the Rwanda genocide. Meetings halted the war in Bosnia. I also think that round table talks at the UN saved 2 million people from murder and starvation in Cambodia, halting Pol Pot.

    Oh wait, I got that backwards. Diplomacy without teeth is just a lot of hot air. It makes us feel good that we're trying sooo hard. But while talks drag on...people simply die.

    If anything, the 'peace' party of US Democrats and France ought to be ashamed that we've done precious little to actually halt so many human atrocities. Being a little 'r' republican, I can't say that the republican party has done much better, but they often don't claim to care so much about those issues.

    As to 'talking' with our enemies...North Korea isn't going to go nuts with a nuclear bomb. All they want is food and energy without losing face. In 15 years the country will be re-united, and have a east/west germany unification feel.
    Iran...is problematic. A majority of the younger urban population is pro-US to an extent, while diplomatically we have to deal with older, more anti-Western poloticians and religious leaders. This is still the same country that 20 years ago sent childern to walk across landmine fields to clear it. And sent 'soldiers' armed with relic rifles and pitchforks to attack Iraqi tanks. Iran is a non-Arab, minority Shia country in a region dominated by Arab Sunni muslims. It wants more power, ie leverage. Would Iran use a nuke? Could we risk them controlling the Middle East, the single most important center of economic growth in the world (yes, oil sadly)?

    So do we talk to them? Everything must be on the table. However, rule out an Israeli style attack on their facilities and they will not stop their production, its that simple. Talking is great but don't show your cards.

    July 25, 2007 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
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