International,  Stateside

“Without preconditons”: a pseudo-debate

The phrase “without preconditions” has come to represent a supposedly key foreign policy difference between likely Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain.

It all started last July during a debate between the then-multiple Democratic candidates for President, when a questioner asked Obama if he would “be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”

To which Obama replied:

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.

Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

Hillary Clinton vigorously disagreed:

Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.

I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. 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.

And I will pursue very vigorous diplomacy.

And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.

As I posted at the time, I thought Clinton’s answer was more thoughtful and mature. And McCain has jumped on the issue too, saying that Obama fails to understand “basic realities of international relations.”

Without repudiating his original willingness to meet hostile foreign leaders unconditionally, Obama has recently engaged in a bit of clarifying (call it backtracking if you must)– not exactly the first time a politician has done so.

In his recent speech on Latin America to a Cuban-American audience in Miami (which any Chavistas or Fidelistas who thought he might be sympathetic to their cause ought to read), Obama said:

Now let me be clear. John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.

Obama also qualified his position on meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

“There’s no reason why we would necessarily meet with Ahmadinejad before we know that he was actually in power. He’s not the most powerful person in Iran,” Obama told reporters.

Under Iran’s system of clerical rule, the Islamic Republic’s religious establishment has final say in all state matters.

The Bush administration’s stance on Iran was there would be no meetings unless Tehran agreed to suspend its nuclear enrichment program, Obama said.

“Since presumably that is a major topic of conversation, what that really means is we’re not going to talk to Iran, and that’s the policy that they’ve initiated,” he said.

Preparations, by contrast, mean making sure that meetings begin “with low-level diplomatic engagement and that there’s a clear agenda so that any meetings would be constructive.” He also stressed a meeting doesn’t guarantee concessions.

In the end, I think this is one of those periodic issues which appears enormously important during a campaign, but which fades into insignificance once the election is over.

In fact I think it’s a mistake to pay too much attention to what any candidate says about foreign policy during a campaign. Any President who lets his foreign policy be dictated more by what he said on the campaign trail than by actual circumstances and events ought not to be President anyway.

Richard Nixon did not campaign in 1968 on a promise to engage in friendly meetings, without preconditions, with longtime enemies Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai in Beijing. And in 2000 George W. Bush said during a debate with Al Gore: “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. . . . I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I’m missing something here. I mean, we’re going to have a kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.”

I for one am pleased Bush didn’t stand by that position, although he did an unforgivably half-assed job when it came to the nuts and bolts of reneging on it.

Bush asserted before the Israeli Knesset this month that “some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.” He called this a “foolish delusion” akin to appeasement of Nazi Germany before World War II. And yet Bush regularly meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (most recently at the king’s horse farm near Riyadh), despite strong evidence of official Saudi tolerance (at best) of funding for terrorist groups almost seven years after 9/11. Will McCain refuse to meet Abdullah until the Saudis make a serious effort to block such funding?

Yesterday The Washington Post reported that Bush “has spoken to or exchanged letters… on numerous occasions” with the world’s leading practitioner of genocide, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir– presumably without preconditions. Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have met directly with al-Bashir.

Is there a significant moral difference between between this and a face-to-face meeting between Bush and the Sudanese leader? At which point are we slicing differences a little too thin?