Charleston, S.C. — Sen. Barack Obama’s closest political adviser, David Axelrod, wants you to know that Obama did not say what he appeared to say at Monday night’s Democratic debate here in Charleston. A questioner, speaking via debate sponsor YouTube, asked whether, in the spirit of “bold leadership,” the candidates would “meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration…with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries.” Obama had a ready answer.
“I would,” he said without hesitation. “And the reason is that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding principle of this administration — is ridiculous. Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to the 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.”
With those words, Obama seemed to commit himself to talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, and Kim Jong Il — separately, without precondition. He even said it was “a disgrace that we have not spoken to them.” But after the debate, speaking to reporters in the spin room, Axelrod claimed Obama didn’t mean any such meetings would actually take place.
“He said that he would be willing to talk,” Axelrod explained. “And what he meant was, as a government, he’d be willing and eager to initiate those kinds of talks, just as during the Cold War there were low-level discussions and mid-level discussions between us and the Soviet Union and so on. So he was not promising summits with all of those leaders.”
Axelrod said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who took sharp issue with Obama on the question, was “trying to make a distinction without a difference.” If Axelrod seemed a bit sensitive about the issue, it was because Clinton, when she was asked about meeting Ahmadinejad, et al, showed a much firmer grasp of what a president should and should not do when dealing with rogue states. “I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year,” Clinton said. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse.” While criticizing the Bush administration for its alleged diplomatic failures, she concluded: “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.”
Afterward, other candidates echoed Clinton’s criticism. Sen. Joseph Biden, who has emerged as the clear-eyed antiwar realist in the Democratic race, told National Review Online that the idea of a president meeting with Ahmadinejad, Chavez, and others was “naïve.” “World leaders should not meet with other world leaders unless they know what the agenda is, so you don’t end up being used,” Biden said. “When I went to meet with Milosevic before the war, the condition I met with him was that no press would be available, I’d only meet him in his office late at night, and I wouldn’t dignify being seen with him.”
The only unequivocal support Obama received was from Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who used the after-debate spin sessions to promote his idea of “strength through peace.” “Of course” the president should talk to Ahmadinejad and other such leaders,” Kucinich said. “You can get on a cell phone and call somebody on the other side of the world right now. To me, it is almost unbelievable that someone running for president of the United States would say that they wouldn’t pursue a meeting with another person in the cause of building peace.”
“You’re referring to Sen. Clinton?”
“Of course I am.”
Kucinich explained that Mrs. Clinton “subscribes to that doctrine of peace through strength” — the old idea that a strong American military helps prevent war. Kucinich, on the other hand, believes in “strength through peace.” During the debate, he explained that he would “use the science of human relations and diplomacy,” along with “international agreements and treaties” to settle differences without fighting. He also advocated that viewers “text peace” by using their cell phones to send the message that they’re tired of war.
It was a nice techie touch at a debate that relied on video questions uploaded by YouTube users around the world. But the debate didn’t quite live up to its billing as the Next Big Thing; instead, it was roughly the equivalent of the town hall meetings that each candidate has attended hundreds of times. At a lunch with reporters a few hours before the debate, YouTube founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley spoke of how their two-and-a-half-year-old company, sold to Google last October for $1.65 billion, has created a world stage for politics. “You don’t have to be in New Hampshire, you don’t have to be in Iowa, to present a question,” Chen said. “You’re not restricted by where you live.”
But most of the time, it turns out, your questions will be pretty much the same as the ones asked by people who live in New Hampshire and Iowa. The significance of the Ahmadinejad/Assad/Chavez/Castro/Kim question was not that it came from a man in California or that it was asked via web video. It was that it revealed Obama’s almost embarrassingly naïve view of a president’s role in world affairs. And that was the real story in Charleston Monday night.
– Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time. A shorter version of this piece appears in The Hill.