July 25th, 2007
12:04 PM ET
11 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. Cathy Risberg, Palatine, IL

    I agree with Senator Barack Obama's initial answer to the question of whether as president he would meet with Chavez or Castro. To me and other voters this response represents one of confidence, strength and resolve and a firm belief in the absolute necessity for the U.S. to turn around its damaged world image and put us firmly on a path of peaceful human-rights based negotiations with foreign nations.

    I also agree with Sen. Obama that Sen. Clinton's charges that his answer was irresponsible is a politically based maneuver to fabricate a controversy to make up for her own past regrets in voting to go to war with Iraq.

    I know that more voters than myself would have much more faith in an American president who would be willing to listen first to a foreign leader, especially if no hostilities have been initiated, and move negotiations forward to a peaceful resolution.

    As a nation it would not be in our best interests to elect a president who would display the impression of arrogance and say it's possible to discern hidden agendas.

    We have had that already – nearly 8 years of a presidency that has created an incredible climate of fear and mistrust here and abroad. We need new leadership.

    We need a president who can build relationships with all foreign nations and who can resolutely promote an agenda of peace and defend basic human rights regardless of the public or hidden agendas of other world leaders.

    July 25, 2007 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  2. Gary, Atlanta, GA

    Is it just me or did Hillary Clinton NOT admit she made a mistake in her vote or would she NOT do it again knowing what she knows now(even though she was fooled by faulty info). John Edwards did. Bill Clinton also said he supported the war last year. Do we really want a change or what? I will take intelligence and common sense over politics anyday. We need our respect back in the world, I vote Obama. Second Edwards.

    July 25, 2007 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  3. Taka, Windhoek NAMIBIA

    Not exactly a good question. There were 5 parts to the question as stated by CNN they pertained to a.) the President b.) sitting down c.) specific countries d.) the first term e.) bridging divisions. What exactly were people saying yes and/or no to? All or parts of the question.

    Obama did not say give in or agree. I believe he suggested engagement.

    The best answer for me would have been: I would meet if a.) it was a priority and b.) was in America's interests and the interests of the people of the country to be engaged c.) and the prospects of realistic gains for BOTH sides were high at the given time.

    One cannot sit down to discuss with preconditions if one is trying to steer away from an ethnocentric approach to foreign policy, and unless you have no view of the engaging party as an equal nation. One cannot forcefeed foreign policy down another country's collective throat.

    The interviewer did not ask who would possibly set the pre-conditions. That would have been interesting.

    I do support Obama from across the Atlantic but on balance Hilary Clinton's answer was better as I don't think it wise to answer all 5 of the subquestions with a yes. I only hope she wasn't answering all the subquestions with a no. However, Obama spoke his mind not a line from Political Campaigning 101. At least Obama had a "nuanced and sophisticated understanding" of how this debated issue within the campaign has lead to "a nice fabricated controversy". I admire Obama for his optimism and his candour. I need to see a leader who can say I will maintain my position and composure whilst searching for the meaning and the positives in my rival's argument. We don't need to see the desparation retorts. Nothing more ingenuine than a President who has an answer for everything. Leave that to God.

    Obama should leave the Iraq issue alone. It's a waste of time pointing out where people have been idealogically and politically. Rather focus on where they are now. For the record most people deceived by faulty
    "intelligence" would have made the same decision. His comment either infers gullibility or questionable decision making, neither of which Hilary is guilty of. Best to leave it.

    I and the rest of the world are hoping for some sense to come out of the US of A and if going forward means employing old school smear tactics then nothing is going to change.

    Probably better to have a sophomoric teenage approach to listening with no agenda than adopting a PhD-ish self-righteous disposition which invariably leads to a desire to LECTURE. There is nothing complicated about International Diplomacy. It is standard. The difference between America's and Iran's handbooks on protocols for DIPLOMACY is just the font size and arabic. Would anyone dispute GBW's latest sit-down with Putin was unorthodox? The diplomacy that some want to see is the same calculated, cautious, conservative, claptrap which makes assumptions of a one-size fits all approach to dealing with a nation. The American approach at best gives one a sense of being "handled". America needs new approaches.

    If CNN were really forward-thinking they would conduct a poll to find out exactly who the rest of the world wants to see in the White House. Obviously any election is sacred and sovereign but it might give the American public a better idea of what kind of politics the world is hoping for.

    I must be one of those "touchy-feely" foreigners but no-one wants to destroy America. It's just that no-one wants their way of lives to be changed from without . . . . me included.

    Does the American public have enough mental energy to keep track of the Presidential race and the actual President. I mean it's hard enough following two soaps at the same time . . .

    July 25, 2007 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  4. Jon, Sacramento ~ Ca

    Hillary has MUCH more experience than Obama...

    * White water experience
    * FBI Files experience
    * Supporting womens rights (as long as they're not named Paula, Monica, Jaunita, etc)
    * Bed & Breakfast experience (selling nights in the Lincoln Bedroom)
    * Stealing White House furniture experience
    * Failed Universal Healthcare experience

    I'm not so sure the American people want Hillary's type of experience!

    July 25, 2007 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  5. F.Igwealor

    I have to set the record straight here since some people totally misunderstood the question.

    Please go back to the question and the example cited of Sadat going to Israel. Read Sadat’s trip of 1977 and also see what preparations were made prior to the trip.

    Low-level diplomacy was not issue here; some diplomatic works were already done before Sadat made his bold move.

    The question was; after all the low and high level diplomatic negotiation were completed by the underlines at State Department, would the future President be willing to meet any of our enemies without a pre-condition as Sadat did, when he visited Israel?

    Obama’s answer was exactly in line with the question.
    It looked like Hillary didn’t even know about Sadat’s move and the role played by President Jimmy in the low and high level diplomacy to prepare for Sadat’s move.

    Obama was willing to meet with any of our enemies once the groundwork was done like Sadat did.

    This was not a question of preliminary diplomatic negotiations; that would have been taken care of as it was in the Sadat case, it was about our future president's willingness to do as Sadat, Reagan, Nixon, and Kennedy did.

    So far Obama is the only candidate willing to show that kind of bold leadership exemplified by Reagan, Kennedy, and Sadat.

    If Hillary couldn’t understand that the question assumed that high and low-level diplomacy have been done, then we can’t really be able to help her.

    No wonder she voted to authorized the war and thought that she was sending Bush to the UN. Too bad – We want sharp minds in 2008, not people that could not understand a simple question like or issue like Sadat’s trip to Israel on November 19, 1977. Sadat was the first Arab leader to officially visit Israel when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and spoke before the Knesset in Jerusalem

    Some people are shouting about Hillary’s experience and this is one prime example that her type of experience is useless to the nation at this time.

    Yes. We cannot just ignore the experience question; the truth is that Hillary is running on experience and so far she has not proven that to the American public.

    Hillary told us that she is running on experience so we must call her out on her ignorance of basic procedures like this.

    No wonder she thought that voting to authorize the war was not actually giving Bush the power to invade, but rather the power to go to the United Nations.

    Hillary does not understand that no bilateral presidential meeting/summit has ever taken place without a low and high level diplomatic groundwork. That failure to understand a simple foriegn policy issue as a presidential summit makes her unqualified to be our commander-in-chief in 2009.

    She might one day give out Confidential National Security information and thought that it was just a weather tip.

    July 25, 2007 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  6. Outraged Political Activist

    As Obama supporter I was sad to see that this debate did express his lack of experience. However, it is his political innocence that makes him my favorite candidate in this upcoming election.

    He is not a usual politician that has a separate agenda from what he campaigns. I feel that he truly cares about change for this nation in the right direction.

    I am tired of the private sector controlling our politicians. My biggest gripe with Hillary is that she is such a big supporter of big business.

    Politicians say the economy is better in America, but better for whom? Sure its great for a CEO, who can show great record breaking numbers on a 10-k because he has been able to cut cost (outsourcing, tax cuts).

    This country needs a little bit of inexperience. Key words being "a little bit." I don’t know how we elected a C student who only has failing business ventures twice. Our ignorance and stubbornness to vote across party lines has truly taken its toll on this nation.

    For once I hope that we can really educate ourselves and make the best decision for the future.

    July 25, 2007 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  7. Bob Smith St Louis, MO

    Hillary may be smart, educated and experienced in the ways of the White House, but she's also arrogant and self-centered. Despite her best efforts to look like a caring, compassionate person, deep down I believe she's more interested in feeding her ego than the best interests of our country.

    July 25, 2007 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  8. Michelle, Monrovia, CA

    I agree with Senator Obama. Why shouldn't we be "willing" to meet with these leaders? It extends an olive branch and opens the course for dialogue. Bush's stand-offish position is what is making things worse for America's reputation as w world leader. I applaud Sen. Obama for standing up to say he is willing to talk. If you ask me, his willingness to meet personally with these world leaders (whether we want them to be or not) rather than sending someone else to do it in his place speaks a lot to his experience and knowledge of the way politics (and the world) works.

    As for Ms. Albright's comments and support of Sen. Clinton, she sort of has to agree doesn't she? I mean Bill Clinton appointed her. Don't get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for the woman but I think she's wrong on this one.

    July 25, 2007 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  9. Sad Dog

    PLEASE: Ask NFL to Do More: Suspend Vick Without Pay Following Michael Vick’s indictment, the NFL has ordered Vick not to come to training camp this year. Please urge the NFL to suspend Vick without pay now. Click here and sign this petition: http://getactive.peta.org/campaign/afalcons_vick_2

    July 25, 2007 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  10. Jeff, Indiana, PA

    From the editor of the Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel:

    Witness how far Clinton's nuanced experience got her when confronted with the 2002 Iraq war resolution.

    David [Corn] may well be right that Obama's opponents will try to exploit his response. But from a foreign policy point of view was Obama's response so wrong and Clinton's so right? Her husband's administration generally followed Hillary's approach; during his two terms President Clinton did not meet with Fidel Castro or with Hugo Chavez or with the leaders of Iran, Syria, and North Korea –while generally pursuing a policy of trying to isolate these countries. But what did the Clinton approach actually accomplish? The respective regimes of Castro in Cuba and Chavez in Venezuela have only grown stronger, and more influential in Latin America. Although Syria was forced to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon last year, the regime of Bashar Assad is as firmly entrenched in power as was his father's. And in spite of the odious politics and qualities of Ahmadinejad, Iran carries more weight in the Middle East than it did doing the early 1990s while American power and standing has declined considerably.

    Indeed, both Clinton and Bush may have missed a historic opportunity to open a new chapter with Iran when reformer Mohamed Khatemi was elected in 1997. Had President Clinton taken the bold step Obama suggested and had met without precondition with President Khatemi in 1998 or '99 instead of pursuing sanctions, might not the democratic reformers be in power in Iran? Might we not have a healthy and growing trading relationship with an economically reformed Iran? Might Iran have capped its nuclear program and cooperated with us in managing regional relations including the peaceful downfall of Saddam Hussein? We do not know because the foreign policy sophisticates thought it was too politically risky for President Clinton to make such a bold move.

    Above all, foreign policy is a matter of simultaneously projecting American confidence and American humility. In signaling that he was willing to meet with the leaders of these countries, Obama was signaling that the United States has the confidence in its values to meet with anyone. But he also signaled a certain humility that reflects the understanding that the next president must reach out to the rest of the world and not merely issue conditions from the White House and threaten military force if it does not get its way.

    Enough of Bush -Clinton – Bush! Vote Obama in 2008 for Bold, new leadership!

    July 25, 2007 06:27 pm at 6:27 pm |
  11. Jane Smith, Chicago Il

    Considering that population, as well as the leaders, of the countries mentioned in that question consider the US & it's leaders complete idiots.. the likelyhood of any meeting between them being used as satirical fodder is 99.999999% possible.

    Chavez had the testicular fortitude to call bush the devil in the UN, you honestly think he'd have an issue with editing audio/video clips to further his agenda? Be serious.

    Cuba could care less about any american president that isn't coming to the table specifically intending to drop the embargo.

    Need I go into Iran & North Korea? Both Ahmadinejad & Kim Jong-Il regularly use the Us as comedic fodder.

    The willingless of the american population to support the newest fad & jump unto the newest trend is mindboggling. As someone who could previously could care less about US politics, I find this whole fascination with Obama amusing. I'll give Obama the credit he deserves but jeez people, it's not the 2nd coming.

    I wouldn't want a newly apprenticed mechanic messing with the vehicle I trust with my safety. Look what you're proposing to do with your government!!

    July 25, 2007 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  12. peter M, Toronto, Ontario

    Obama is a breath of fresh air. He speaks to America's strengths, confidence and hope. America leads the world by projecting military force and diplomcay wisely. It leads by talking to all countries not just some; it leads by talking to them not just about them. Hillary is about status quo; feeding on fear. Since when did it become fashionable for the leader of the free to avoid speaking to world leaders for fear that they will use him or her for propaganda purposes?
    Obama exudes youthfulness, energy and promise. Hi is the best example yet, that America's best days are ahead. By the way, have you noticed why Hillary keeps talking about what she has done? That is in the past. Obama keeps speaking about what he will do. That is the future...the 21st century and it is inspiring. When Obama gave that bold answer, he once and for all, proved to any America listening and the world that he is not part of the polluted Washington crowd; the crowd that has been bought and paid for by lobbyists. He broke out and set himself apart... That is leadership..well-reasoned leadership. America needs renewal, not the Clinton-Bush cabal that represents stasis rather than progress. And what is this nonsense about experience Hillary and her supporters keep spouting. Being a wife of a President may give one the advantage of knowing where all the rooms and washrooms are located in the White House, it does not make one qualified to be President. Plus, the Washington experience she has acquired as a Senator is the wrong kind of experience America needs right now. Do you want proof, look at the answer she gave when asked how she would deal with difficult world leaders...That answer reflects exactly what Bush and Cheney have been doing. That is not change...it is status quo. Hillary talks a good talk but she is too corrupted by the beltway. Open your eyes America. Obama is your best chance for the future.

    July 25, 2007 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  13. Ed

    Most everyone criticizes the US, thanks to our great democracy. Yet some of us fail to or don't want to see the potential harm or bad intentions, negative influences, other nations, e.g. Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, et al. may have against this great nation. Please realize the US is not the bad guys! "It cannot be we are damned if we do, damned if we don't" We need to remain united!

    July 25, 2007 08:21 pm at 8:21 pm |
  14. Lynn, Vancouver, BC

    As an outsider looking in but also as a world citizen who will be affected by your election I agree with Taka from Nambia.

    Hilliary Clinton is so much like George Bush: arrogant, unable to admit when she is wrong and divisive. What I viewed from her mannerisms at the debate as one who is not a listener, is calculating and totally focussed on becoming president rather than someone who is presenting a vision and a passion for her country and her role in the world. She will not, in my opinion, return respect to America.

    It was amazing that your country reelected Bush/Cheney, and now with 300 million people the leading candidates are Clinton and Guliani and that so many of your politicians have been in Washington for 20, 30, 35 years. What common man experience do they bring to the table? What world experience?

    If you want to be leaders in the world and stop the continuing bickering and your government's inability to do anything in the way of legislation you really do need to to look for new people!!...a potential of at least 24 years from the same two families..unbelievable.

    Can anyone tell me why you don"t recognize Cuba but have a proson on its island? An honest question my friends and I have discussed and haven't been able to find an answer to.

    Lynn, Vancouver, BC

    July 25, 2007 08:21 pm at 8:21 pm |
  15. Víctor Azuaje

    I am from Venezuela and like Obama, but Hillary is right: if a president used the expression "willing to meet with you", Chavez would jump around saying "Yes!, This can't get better, now that I´m going to modify the constitution to be reelected til 2030 and beyond!"

    Wouldn't he use the "willing to meet with you" expression for propaganda purposes? Come on!

    Be careful Obama.

    July 25, 2007 10:39 pm at 10:39 pm |
  16. Kyu Reisch, Radcliff, Kentucky

    Obama wasn't eligible to vote in 2002, war is not a game, they don't plan to get out from the war when they begin it plus it wasn't Hillary's job. Obama praised Hillary's question to Pentagon on Monday debate in front of millions, how come you changed mind so fast? Hillary wants to bring our soldiers home, she has the right to ask pentagon also Bush couldn't do anything for his job five years later, so Hillary is doing her job. You have no idea about how the Capital Hill and the world is working as naive Senator, that's why your answer was fearless. You realize your answer wasn't perfect, that's OK, it is not end of the world, so just accept it and move on instead of refutation. It will be your experience for next time. I wish Obama take a little time to listen, read and watch what professional comments about this time answer instead of none stop speaking . Hillary's gesture was exact as Commander in Chief. I like a little experience:) than a little naivete at White House.

    July 26, 2007 02:46 am at 2:46 am |
  17. Rick, Chicago Illinois

    James Atlanta, GA ... "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."

    If ignoring countries we don't like "have served this country well before he was ever elected", then why is your president ABANDONING them by talking to these countries now?

    Tell us wont you?

    Good luck on your next post in response to mine!

    July 26, 2007 09:11 pm at 9:11 pm |
  18. Rick, Chicago Illinois

    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."

    You still trying to equate a defensive war of necessity with an offensive war of choice eh?

    A war we WON vs Germany, Japan, and Italy in less time with a war we haven't yet won vs a third world country with 1/1000th the military we have?

    Maybe the differences above – the main one being the fact that we're LOSING the battle amongst someone ELSE'S (civil) war after FOUR YEARS of trying might just be why we need an exit strategy?

    Simple FACT: had we won the war by now – under Dubya's failed leadership of it – we wouldn't be talking about exit strategies now would we?

    Methinks I should thank you for posting and thus allowing me to help you out with this one.

    July 26, 2007 09:21 pm at 9:21 pm |
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