Posted on July 30, 2007 in Washington Watch

The U.S. press had been getting bored with the extended and slow-moving 2008 presidential primaries. That is, until last week. Excitement came in the form of a rather intense exchange between the two leading Democratic contenders, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

It began in the midst of a televised debate on July 23. This debate’s format was novel in that questions were posed to the candidates not by journalists but by average citizens who pre-recorded and submitted them via YouTube. Most of the questions were both thoughtful and quite cleverly produced. But, as is the case in these eight-person debates, the responses were mostly uninspiring, with no real sparks, until…

A questioner asked whether the candidates, “would be willing to meet separately, without preconditions, in 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?”.

Barack Obama was the first to answer, and without hesitation said, “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.” He then went on to cite the examples of Presidents Reagan and Kennedy who talked the Soviet Union despite it being our main adversary during the Cold War.

Hillary Clinton was next. Taking a slightly different tack, she said, “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.”

And out of that kernel of difference a giant ruckus grew.

The next day, Clinton, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on her claim as the stronger and more experienced candidate, went on the attack, describing Obama’s views as “irresponsible and frankly, naïve.” She added, “Sen. Obama gave an answer which I think he is regretting today.”

Obama, for his part, didn’t flinch, and far from regretting his comments, instead used them to define the differences between his experience and that of his opponent. He shot back that Clinton had been “naïve and irresponsible” in voting to authorize the war in Iraq, and noted that he “was drawing on a set of experiences that come from a life of living overseas, having family overseas, being able to see the world through the eyes of people outside our borders.”

The two campaigns joined in the fray, with Clinton utilizing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said of such a meeting, “without having done the diplomatic spadework, it would not really prove anything,” and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke saying, “Sen. Clinton believes we need to engage in vigorous diplomacy after the cowboy approach of the Bush years.”

The Obama camp countered that in April, Clinton had said, “You don’t refuse to talk to bad people. … [and] I have consistently urged the president to talk to Iran and talk to Syria,” while an Obama foreign policy advisor, former National Security Advisor Tony Lake added, “a great nation and its president should never fear negotiating with anyone.”

Television’s always talking heads claimed a Clinton victory, arguing that Obama had blundered and allowed Clinton to show that she was “tougher … more experienced and sophisticated.” Bloggers, siding with Obama, rejoined that “the foreign policy establishment … tries to impose those rules onto candidates, declaring this or that a ‘foreign policy gaffe,’ even though it’s often only a gaffe to the very serious people who brought us George Bush’s excellent Iraqi adventure.” As the week wore on, the debate continued and grew sharper.

After fours days of charged rhetoric, a reality check might be in order. Hillary Clinton, if elected, would not pursue the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration. She would, however, as appears to be her penchant, take a rather hard-nosed and cautious approach to foreign affairs. Obama, on the other hand, is neither naïve nor is he irresponsible. But he would, in all probability, seek fundamental changes in how America approaches the world.

But, as is the case in well played-out political dustups, both sides began the process of better defining their campaigns, made their points, and scored, despite some exaggeration. Clinton reestablished her credentials as a tough, smart campaigner. She scored political points, especially among the “inside crowd.” But Obama scored on principle. And in fighting back without missing a beat in defense of his stance, he showed himself to be as tough as his opponent, scoring political points as well.

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