In today's New York Times, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, seeks to clarify his views on meeting with hostile foreign dictators.
“I didn’t say that I would meet unconditionally as John McCain maintained, because that would suggest whether it was useful or not, whether it was advancing our interests or not, I would just do it for the sake of doing it,” Obama said. “That’s not a change in position, that’s simply responding to distortions of my position.”
At last Summer's Youtube/CNN debate here's exactly what Obama said.
He was asked the following: "In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, 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?"
Okay, so let's review:
* A willingness.
* For meetings.
* Without preconditions.
* During the first 12 months of the Obama administration.
* With the leaders of Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
* And the goal: bridging the gap that divides the countries.
And Obama's answer?
"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. And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We’ve been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses."
One point of confusion seems to come from this: Obama is distinguishing between holding these meetings without "preconditions" -- as Obama said he would be willing to do during that debate, meaning that the U.S. would not require Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program before agreeing to a meeting -- and holding them "unconditionally," meaning there without any "preparations," which he now says he would not do.
Obama spoke more about this in our interview with him last week.
Can voters be forgiven for not fully understanding Obama's views on this all?
Yesterday, Obama told reporters, "I want to initiate direct talks, starting at a low level, with Iran, exploring the possibilities of seeing a change in behavior in Iran. And hopefully over time, changing the nature of the relationship."
But the dispute isn't over low-level talks, it's over presidential-level meetings.
The initial Youtube question was about whether Obama would meet with the "leaders" of those hostile countries, not specifically Ahmadinejad.
And Obama yesterday told reporters "there is no reason why we would necessarily meet with Ahmadinejad before we know that he is actually in power. He is not the most powerful person in Iran.”
But in a press conference last September, during the controversy over Ahmadinejad being invited to speak at Columbia University, Obama gave the distinct impression that he would specifically meet with Ahmadinejad, in this exchange:
QUESTION: “Senator, you’ve said before that you’d meet with President Ahmadinejad, would you still meet with him today?”
OBAMA: “Nothing’s changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries. I find many of President Ahmadinejad’s statements odious and I’ve said that repeatedly. And I think that we have to recognize that there are a lot of rogue nations in the world that don’t have American interests at heart. But what I also believe is that, as John F. Kennedy said, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate. And by us listening to the views even of those who we violently disagree with – that sends a signal to the world that we are going to turn the page on the failed diplomacy that the Bush Administration has practiced for so long.”