Some reversals are so blatant that they just cannot be ignored. Today, the New York Times deconstructs the attempts by Barack Obama to spin away from his commitment to meet terrorist-sponsoring heads of state “without preconditions”, and finds then unconvincing. The controversy threatens to define Obama as naive and unprepared for the focal task of conducting the nation’s foreign policy, and the campaign response has backfired:
With his experience and leadership credentials under sharp criticism, Senator Barack Obama and his advisers are trying to clarify what has emerged as a central tenet of his proposed foreign policy: a willingness to meet leaders of enemy nations.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, sought to emphasize, as he and his aides have done continually over the last few days, the difference between avoiding preconditions for talks with nations like Iran and Syria, and granting them automatic discussions at the presidential level.
While Mr. Obama has said he would depart from the Bush administration policy of refusing to meet with certain nations unless they meet preconditions, he has also said he would reserve the right to choose which leaders he would meet, should he choose to meet with them at all.
This equates to a diving maneuver of a backflip with a double-twist. In fact, this position differs little from current American foreign policy. Obama, as Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny note, didn’t include any such nuance in his comments during last July’s YouTube debate, nor in the days afterward:
The caveats belie the simple answer Mr. Obama gave during a debate last summer, when the issue was first raised in a major public forum. Without hesitation or qualification, Mr. Obama said he would hold direct talks with America’s enemies, drawing strong and immediate criticism from his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. …
Several aides immediately thought it was a mistake and sought to dial back his answer. But on a conference call the morning after the debate, Mr. Obama told his advisers that he had meant what he said and thought the answer crystallized how he differed from his rivals.
“I think that it is an example of how stunted our foreign policy debates have become over the last eight years that this is an issue that political opponents try to seize on,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on Wednesday. “It is actually a pretty conventional view of how diplomacy should work traditionally that has fallen into disrepute in Republican circles and in Washington.”
Even after Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called his position naïve, Mr. Obama refused to shy away from it, at times speaking explicitly in terms of a potential meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad.
So what changed? The volume and breadth of the criticism Obama has received for this position has steadily increased, especially of late. Two days ago, Richard Cohen suggested that Obama didn’t know what he said when he made that pledge and fretted over his “worrisome naivete”. As that assessment gains traction across the spectrum, Obama has attempted to reverse himself without actually admitting that he was wrong.
In this very article, Obama claims that he didn’t say he would meet the leaders of Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and other hostile nations unconditionally. He told the Times that this accusation was a “distortion” by John McCain. However, the YouTube makes his unequivocal answer very clear:
Heck, Obama’s own website says the exact same thing:
Diplomacy: Obama is the only major candidate who supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions. Now is the time to pressure Iran directly to change their troubling behavior. Obama would offer the Iranian regime a choice. If Iran abandons its nuclear program and support for terrorism, we will offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organization, economic investments, and a move toward normal diplomatic relations. If Iran continues its troubling behavior, we will step up our economic pressure and political isolation. Seeking this kind of comprehensive settlement with Iran is our best way to make progress.
Obama then tried to say that he didn’t mean that he would meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad specifically. Unfortunately, as ABC pointed out last week, Obama confirmed that he would do exactly that three months after the YouTube debate:
Obama may want to spin out of the trap that he laid for himself in his attempt to out-clever his Democratic opponents, but his own repeated rhetoric on this point won’t allow it. Either he has to keep insisting that “without preconditions” somehow includes acquiescence to American preconditions for ending terrorist support and interference in Iraq, or he has to admit that he didn’t have a clue about foreign policy when he answered that question last summer and kept doubling down on it throughout the Democratic primaries.