The Corner

National Security & Defense

Pre-existing Conditions (Foreign-Policy Version)

Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (left) and Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama are introduced at their first debate, held at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, September 26, 2008. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

In an earlier post, I took a little walk down Memory Lane, remembering the 2010 election of Susana Martinez as governor of New Mexico. I would like to do a little more walking, to 2008. Whether to meet with foreign enemies without preconditions was an issue in that year’s presidential campaign. President Trump has brought it to mind.

On Sunday, he tweeted, “The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No Conditions.’ That is an incorrect statement (as usual!).”

Perhaps the president has changed his mind, as people do. In a July 2018 press conference, he said the following about meeting with Iranian officials: “No preconditions. No. If they want to meet, I’ll meet. Anytime they want. Anytime they want. It’s good for the country, good for them, good for us, and good for the world. No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”

A couple of months ago — in a June 23 interview — Trump reiterated, “No preconditions.”

Just a week ago, on the subject of Iran, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said, “The president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions.”

Yes, very clear indeed.

In 2008, Candidate Obama was asked a question. Actually, it was in 2007 — July — as the 2008 cycle was getting into gear. The question: “Would you 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?”

“I would,” said Obama. He further said, “. . . the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.” (The administration, of course, was George W. Bush’s.)

On and on this went, right till Election Day. Republicans hammered Obama as naïve and reckless, not ready for prime time, not fit for the big chair. John McCain, the Republican nominee, was the chief hammerer.

The two nominees had a lengthy exchange on this subject — meeting with enemies without preconditions — in their first debate, September 26, 2008. (The debate was held at Ole Miss, where WFB held many of his Firing Line debates.) The transcript makes highly interesting reading — especially in light of what has transpired between the United States and North Korea, for example. Go here.

Obama stressed, over and over, that he was talking about low-level talks without preconditions, not presidential-level ones. McCain, having none of it, said that Obama would confer on our enemies a legitimacy that they did not deserve.

What is my view of preconditions? (Not that you asked.) I think the U.S. should do whatever is in its interest, at a given moment. Of course, we can debate what our interest requires. As a rule, I would be wary of giving dictators — especially our enemies — a platform, a spotlight, and a plum.

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