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. John Ray Raleigh, NC

    You must be "willing" to meet with anyone. It is the arrogance seemingly espoused by Clinton that has America where it is today. You meet, discuss, and then, there may or may not be changes, but positive communication should always the first step to solving recognized problems.

    July 25, 2007 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  2. Jullie Pan, Woodbridge, CT

    The assertion of "sophistication" on HRC's comments and "naivete" on BO belies what needs to be done.
    HRC's comments indicates that she is generally more concerned about how the world perceives the US and its actions, rather than solely what is the right and best thing to do. If appearance and self-interest rather than substance are truly what drives us, then we deserve the future that our President and government have provided us. BO may be naive, but the reality is that NO MATTER WHAT we are engaged in a war with which the "other side" has no reason to consistently cooperate. At least by talking you should BE ABLE TO FIGURE OUT the depths of human nature with which you deal.

    July 25, 2007 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  3. Romesh Khardori, MD [Springfield, Illinois]

    I think Senator Obama is off mark when he criticizes Sen Clinton for asking for exit strategy five years later. Greatness lies in acknowledging mistake and making amends. Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly said that her decision was based on the best made available to senators when congress first authorized war. She has said that had she had the insight that she has now, she would not have voted yes first time. The answer is honest and perfect. Spin doctors wish to twist the facts and want to make her look bad. Actually she has shown better moral fiber when she does not vacillate.
    On the contrary Sen. Obama wants to have it both ways. Vote No for war but yes for funding. In my profession such stance is a clinical disorder called split personality.
    Sen. Obama came across as naive when he answered he would meet with dictators. Mrs. Clinton appeared more nuanced and mature. Sen. Obama should grow up. He is acting like a spoiled pampered kid.

    July 25, 2007 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  4. daveclay, Milwaukee, WI

    Obama’s “nativity” is exactly what America needs.

    Agreed. Does the current state of America need further experience and expertise of Washington lifers? Making the same tactical, political decisions that have been made for the last 40 years?

    July 25, 2007 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  5. Tim, San Diego, CA

    As much as Hillary questions Barrack's response, where does she stand on Nancy Pelosi's unauthorized visit to Syria? That trip seemed to get brushed under pretty quickly by the Dems.

    July 25, 2007 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  6. Ulises Salazar, Puerto La Cruz, VENEZUELA

    From Outside:
    Most comments seem to start in the wrong direction, which just leaves the analysis in the wrong stand. even the question was pointing the other way.
    There are NO ENEMIES out there TRYING TO GET YOU people. There are countries, and other people trying to do what they think is best for them.
    So, starting with talking to our ENEMIES makes no sense. You talk to people about common aspects in which you may disagree and come to an understanding. AMERICA does not want free trade agreements to HELP others, it wants them for their benefit. Others must watch out for their interests and speak against them. But, there must be common ground somewhere.
    FOr those of you who don't know or remember, Bill Clinton spoke with Chavez about oil prices and came to a price band ($20-30 per barrel). Bush did not speak to anybody and prices rockected, benefits to those in power of oil companies (happen to be the same as in office in "AMERICA").
    So, the question is to be willing to talk on common issues. Not on issues like whether I have or you free press (what a fantasy, it just doesn't exists). That is internal problems we all have. I don't think AMERICA is ready to talk, either one is assuming thay will be talking to inferiors, which is definetely no WAY to start a conversation.

    July 25, 2007 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  7. Raymond Rijkse, Spring Lake, NC

    Hillary Clinton has a point and a political perspective backed by shere experience. I'm an Army Officer and like most Soldiers, am following these debates with an open mind however, the question we must ask is can our nation afford a president that lacks the experience and comprehension of military strategies along with diplomatic resolutions? I think it speaks for itself. Hillary Clinton's agenda is convinving more citizens and service members that if the shoe fits, she WILL wear it!

    July 25, 2007 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  8. Dave, Milwaukee, WI

    The actual question was: would you meet with these world leaders, during your first year as president, without precondition?

    I think Clinton's answer to this question was perfectly reasonable. It wouldn't be good global politics to have, say, Hugo Chavez, sit down with the President of the United States with a completely blank slate... "So... what do you want to talk about?" Clinton said that as president she would first send envoys and other specialists in diplomacy to open the channels of communication before she actually sits down with a world leader. Therefore, the claim that her approach is akin to Bush's is simply false. Bush's policy has been total diplomatic break with Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, North Korea. A complete break is not the same thing as a president wisely testing the waters before showing up for a sit-down.

    Look at this way: say the CEOs of two competing corporations wanted to sit down and figure out a way to put aside their differences and cooperate on something. Would the CEOs have a face to face meeting to work out an arrangement? Sure. But only after extensive negotiations conducted by their various representatives. Otherwise you'd have two powerful people sitting there talking without an agenda, without, as Clinton said, "a way forward." That's not how things get done.

    July 25, 2007 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  9. María Soledad Cervantes Ramírez, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, Mexico

    As a Mexican and a Latin American, I sympathize and am totally in favor of Sen. Obama's willingness to speak to leaders of other countries, even if their policies are not in line with the one dictated by the White House. Other arrogant and ignorant U.S. Presidents, in refusing to negotiate directly with leaders of countries that they were wreaking havoc in. I bet nobody in the U.S. remembers how Reagan, almost single-handedly, organized and poked, using Casey's CIA, the 1980's fratricidal war in Nicaragua, only with the purpose of using that nation as an ideological battlefield against the Soviets, without caring in the least for the populations, who were traumatized and starving. When Sandinista Daniel Ortega asked to negotiate directly with Reagan he refused, only prolonging the suffering of all those human beings. 30,000 lives were lost in that war. Besides, How does Clinton know that Chavez is a dictator? Because he gives away food and bricks to the poor? or because he has refused to get in line with the U.S.-led World Bank and IMF's strategies that instead of helping our countries, deeply damage our economies?
    I felt for Clinton at the time of the scandal caused by her husband AND by the Republicans. Now I see that she put up with that due to her greed for power.
    If only U.S. people were prepared for a Black president.

    Thank you so much,
    María Soledad Cervantes-Ramírez

    July 25, 2007 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  10. Fred Kopp, Rock Island, IL

    Sure Obama's naive: His earlier "first responders" comment -wow!;Interjecting the emotional, devisive "sex ed in kindergarten issue" into the campaign when it was not even a fourth rate thought to most voters; now, his "jimmy carter – pollyanna" approach to diplomacy. Again, wow! Obama's vision for america is Illinois "writ large". As an Illinois citizen, I find that down right scary. If he's elected, America's loss will be Illinois' gain.

    July 25, 2007 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  11. Ron, Honolulu HI

    I did not see the debate but I somehow doubt Obama "promised to meet" with all the worlds most problematic leaders without any sort of prior dialogue or arrangement. Or maybe he did say "yeah, I'm going on an axis of evil tour- who wants to come? Could you call Korea and let them I'll be there Thursday and let Iran know they're slated for next Monday."!!?? And why do we send our president to go make small talk on the friends tour all the time? We know what most or our allies are going to do which is be cordial and agree with us until things get sticky and they jump ship while their general populace snicker about what bullies and pigs we are. Whatever. The people we need to be concerned with are the ones who are talking about nukes and the United States in the same sentence.

    But what's wrong with letting some of the people we don’t see eye to eye with know that we are interested in just sitting down and talking with them and are willing to do so without forcing a hundred and one conditions on the meeting? Are we seriously afraid of what some of these nut job leaders will proclaim to the world if our president did such a thing? At least we can say, and the world can see that we tried and to be realistic that’s probably all you will be able to do with some of the problem leaders no matter how many preconditions you put out there. The world will see us care enough to send our number one representative and who could fault us for that?

    Or maybe we should keep up with the status quo since it seems to be working out so marvelously. "We don't like you and you don’t like us so screw you and the horse you rode in on until you agree to do what we say. Just send me an email when you change your mind and are ready to apologize." So far, so good. I don’t really know much about Obama and typically think republican but to hear a more optimistic approach to our foreign policy problems is refreshing. What does Clinton expect to achieve with more of the same? Her packaged, "this is how we do it" answers are pretty stale and I also get the feeling she is more interested in fulfilling personal ambition that the good of the country, unlike Obama. Personally, I would never vote for a Clinton after watching Bill Clinton look straight into the camera and lie to all the citizens he represented. I don’t trust either one of them.

    July 25, 2007 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  12. Kay, Washington, DC

    Why is everyone focusing on the word "willing"? We all know they are BOTH willing to meet with these leaders unlike the Bush Administration.

    The question focuses on the words "the first year" NOT the first term.

    The Bush Administration has will be leaving a MESS to clean up for anyone who takes office.

    I know I wouldn't want MY PRESIDENT wasting time with dictators in HER first year. We've got major problems on our hands and I don't believe our president should be flying anywhere except the VA hospitals to see our wounded soldiers to find out thier needs, New Orleans, Hospitals in general to fix healthcare and the Capitol Builing to pass through legislation overturning the mess that was made for the past eight years.

    My vote is for Hillary!

    July 25, 2007 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  13. C.J.; Washington, D.C.

    As others have pointed out, Sen. Obama didn't promise to meet with these "bad leaders." He said he'd be willing to do so - and that shows an openness that's been sadly lacking in our approach to foreign relations. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together — and if we are to live together, we have to talk." Sen. Obama understands that; Sen. Clinton clearly does not.

    July 25, 2007 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |

    I think in disingenuous of the Clinton campaign to make much ado about this issue. I watched the 'debate' and thought that Obama simply left off what is obvious to most intelligent Americans – that is, of COURSE he'll only talk to those countries after the diplomatic efforts have first taken place, but, he'll make sure it'll take place within the first year! I believe that goes without saying and for Sen. Clinton's campaign to seize on the obvious, it appears to this voter that they're getting worried about Obama's numbers. Truly, I was on the fence between both of these great Americans, but one more similar snideful incident by the Clinton's will push me over to Obama come 2008!!!

    July 25, 2007 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  15. Frances, New York, NY

    Hillary's stance is that of a pouty little girl who refuses to talk to someone because they don't agree with her. She's telling the world "we're not going to talk to Iran because they've been bad boys and they need to sit in the corner and think about what they've done." How mature is that. The Bush administration is either afraid to confront leaders with drastically different views, or else wants to show that we're too much "better" than these "inferior" other countries to acknowledge they exist. Its like the Brits in India all over again. Thank God Obama sees through that, and can acknowledge that acting like kindergarteners is an unacceptable move for the most influential country in the world. Hillary may have more experience in the political arena but Obama, having grown up with foreign family members and spent significant time living outside of the US, has a perspective on international affairs that is significantly superior to Hillary's and is exactly what our country needs in this expansive time of globalization and international conflict.

    July 25, 2007 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  16. Tony, Union Grove WI

    I think it is important to have dialog with each nation. I would have to agree with Obama. The thought that we shouldn't discuss problems with rogue states is ludicris, because the world is becoming increasingly more globalized I feel discussions with Every Nation is important..... Beside it is just an "Open Door Policy" hmm what a concept.

    July 25, 2007 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  17. Ron Davenport, Greenwood, SC

    What I find amazing is that Senator Obama has only one thing to say about Senator Clinton- her vote to authorize the war. In each of his retorts to Clinton that is the first thing out of his mouth. I think a Clinton/Obama ticket is the best for this country at this time. Can't we all get along.

    July 25, 2007 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  18. Robert, NY

    Hillary is so much more presidential than the baby faced Obama.It is so easy to hide behind an Iraq vote while he himself did not had to make that choice. Going into Iraq was not the problem, having people as Paul Bremer was. Presidents do not meet just anyone, their diplomatic core can. But Maybe Obama has the stomach to shake hands with Mugabe or Omar al-Bashir, or are African mass murderers too much for him?

    July 25, 2007 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  19. Darrell Northam, Woodland CA

    Unless the Iranian leader takes back his comments of "wiping Israel off of the face of the earth" or end his nuclear proliferation program, I would not entertain any talks with such individuals like him, Castro or the left-wing nutcase Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

    July 25, 2007 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  20. Bruce, Franklin, TN

    To all of you "touchy-feely" folks that want to see us on a level diplomatic playing field with the likes of North Korea, Syria, Iran and others led by people who want to destroy us, I would respectfully suggest that you are not being realistic in your assessment of foreign affairs.

    These are totalitarian states who do not have repect for the international community. Remember how much good it did for Neville Chamberlain to talk to Germany in the 30's.

    July 25, 2007 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  21. George, Foxboro, MA

    Wait a minute. We are overlooking yet another false-hood being stated by the candidates. I recall an article on this website stating that the North Koreans are looking to hold talks with the US and other countries. Also Iran is moving in that direction. The W administration is not slamming the door on them.

    Where is Barack and Bilary getting their information from?

    July 25, 2007 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  22. John Wilson, Racine, WI

    The REAL difference here is that between a PhD and a Sophmoric, teenage response to complicated International Diplomacy.
    I suspect most of us understand the dangers inherent in ON-THE-JOB-TRAINING
    of a President...

    July 25, 2007 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  23. Sudhir Malik Olney MD

    Why not with Bin?
    If you can talk with Iran who threaten us (The USA) to harm its interest world wide, and Venezuela leader who call our(May be Obama too) president devil why not go directly and have a peace deal with Osama Bin laden?. I am Indian and green card holder, My personal believe was that American's president election are American affair, but when the life of millions of people involved its no longer remain an American issue. Mr. Obama is committing what public want to hear, but under present circumstances you have to fight the war.

    July 25, 2007 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  24. Mindy Chatsworth, Ca.

    There is more going on here than just political posturing on both sides. Hillary Clinton knows that Barack Obama is the most potent threat to her march to the Democratic presidential nomination. She tried to use this opportunity to exploit doubt about Obama's experience. She clearly feels that she is stronger in that regard. But Obama showed that he can take a hit and give it right back. That is what is important. He responded forcefully and articulately.

    I think Hillary is just trying to draw attention to Obama's perceived weakness as a relative newcomer on the national scene. But he is an extremely intelligent, thoughtful and articulate man. He may not be quite ready yet, but he is a force to be reckoned with and that is the message he sent to Hillary with his strong response.

    I like the fact that Hillary isn't going to have an easy road to the nomination. That is as it should be. We do have a choice here and it will be interesting to see what the Democratic voters decide. Do we choose Hillary Clinton, with her impressive resume and years of experience in the White House, or do we opt for a new direction and take a chance on the new guy, someone with fresh ideas, unfettered with baggage from the past and offering new leadership.

    I will be watching with interest to see how this all plays out. As a lifelong Democrat, I think that our party is fortunate to have such a choice between two highly qualified and worthy candidates.

    July 25, 2007 03:34 pm at 3:34 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.

    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 the explosives. 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)?

    Let's actually look at reality. Talking is fine but at some point you better be willing to back it up or you look like the boy that cried wolf.

    July 25, 2007 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
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