JIM RUTENBERG / JEFF ZELENY
The New York Times
May 29, 2008
WASHINGTON — 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.
The issue presents one of Mr. Obama’s biggest political and policy tests yet as he appears headed toward a general-election contest against Senator John McCain of Arizona: How to continue to add nuance to a policy argument that he views as a winning one, without playing into a fierce round of accusations that he is either shifting positions or appeasing the enemy.
Already the McCain campaign was accusing Mr. Obama of “backtracking,” particularly in the case of whether he would talk with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
Mr. McCain, who has almost daily raised Mr. Obama’s stated willingness to meet with the Iranians, hit the theme again Wednesday, asking a crowd in Reno, Nev., “Why is it that Senator Obama wants to sit down with the president of Iran, but hasn’t yet sat down with General Petraeus, the leader of our troops?”
Later, Mr. Obama dismissed the critique, saying: “This is a typical sarcastic comment that doesn’t have anything to do with the substance and is patently untrue, since I just saw General Petraeus when he was testifying in Washington.”
This week, Mr. Obama said that he was still considering meeting with Iranian leaders, though he would not necessarily guarantee a direct meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad.
“There is no reason why we would necessarily meet with Ahmadinejad before we know that he is actually in power,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “He is not the most powerful person in Iran.”
Last week, Mr. Obama offered a similarly nuanced explanation about meeting with President Raúl Castro of Cuba, saying he would do so only “at a time and place of my choosing.”
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.
“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?” asked Stephen Sixta, a video producer who submitted the question for the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate.
Mr. Obama, the first candidate to respond, answered, “I would.”
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.
But in the last few weeks Mr. McCain and the Republican National Committee have attacked Mr. Obama on his position more fiercely and consistently than his Democratic rivals ever did, with an especially acute focus on Mr. Ahmadinejad, who recently called Israel “a stinking corpse.”
And Mr. Obama and his advisers have responded with more policy details and a more stringent defense. They have, for instance, said that Mr. Obama’s opponents had used his comments that he would be willing to meet with the Iranian leadership — who they do not necessarily define as Mr. Ahmadinejad — to assert incorrectly that he had definite plans to do so.
They have also drawn a distinction between “preconditions” and “preparations” for such talks. In saying he would not impose preconditions on discussions, Mr. Obama said he was referring, for instance, to a Bush administration policy of making high-level meetings contingent upon Iran’s agreement to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Mr. Obama said he viewed its suspension as a goal of any talks, not a starting point for them.
But, he said, he would order lower-level preparatory talks to determine Iran’s motives before agreeing to higher-level meetings.
In the interview Wednesday, Mr. Obama conceded that he might need to do a better job explaining his policy.
“It’s not like this is something that I’ve hid from,” Mr. Obama said. “But there’s no doubt that in a general election, I want the American people to understand exactly what my position is, which has not changed.”
What has changed, he said, is that he now has to rebut accusations by the McCain campaign.
“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,” he said. “That’s not a change in position, that’s simply responding to distortions of my position.”
He added: “I think if we lay out repeatedly and clearly my position, ultimately I think I’ve got the majority of the American people on my side on this issue.”
The McCain campaign, which did not respond to requests for comment, has said Mr. Obama’s approach would elevate the stature of leaders with ill intentions.
Susan E. Rice, a senior foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama, said Mr. Obama had conveyed similarly nuanced policy positions on meetings with foreign leaders of enemy nations months before the YouTube debate.
For instance, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in May 2007, he said that he believed talks with Iran should begin at a low governmental level even if enrichment continued. But, he said, higher-level talks “will not be appropriate without some sense of progress.” The newspaper also quoted him as saying “we need to check” whether there were leaders with a “more sensible attitude” than that of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Some supporters of Mr. Obama’s position say he nonetheless offered a less-complete answer at the debate that gave fodder to his critics.
Former Senator Gary Hart, an Obama supporter and a former presidential candidate, said he believed Mr. Obama had learned an important lesson from the experience: “Don’t use that shorthand, particularly when you’re facing a national election and an opposition that’s going to take advantage of everything that can be misconstrued — you’ve got to almost bend over backwards to be explicit.”
Jim Rutenberg reported from Washington, and Jeff Zeleny from Thornton, Colo. Larry Rohter contributed reporting from New York.