Obama has countered that principled, strong involvement is a better option than President Bush's failed approach of not reaching out, which he says has made countries like Iran stronger.
Obama has also pointed to the history of American diplomacy, saying on May 20, 2008:
"Ronald Reagan met with Gorbachev; Kennedy met with Khruschev; and Nixon met with Mao — and these were folks who have done horrendous damage not only to their own countries but to other countries."
First, those meetings did take place. And they happened without any public demand by the American presidents that action be taken by the other side before the sitdowns could occur, according to scholars of U.S. diplomacy with the Soviet Union and China.
In fact, in the case of Nixon's 1972 meeting with Mao, there's evidence that the Chinese were the ones with demands, making it clear America would have to lay off the question of Taiwanese sovereignty if it wanted to meet, said Robert Sutter, a visiting professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest and a senior fellow at the Nixon Center, said there were no public demands that the Soviet Union make concessions or change policy as a condition for Kennedy's 1961 summit with Khruschev or for the Reagan/Gorbachev talks, the first held in 1985.
If you define the idea of "preconditions" more loosely as diplomatic agreements that set the agenda and parameters of such high-level talks between heads of state, then that certainly did happen, Gvosdev said.
Obama hinted at this latter approach during the May 20 appearance, saying, "Keep in mind, I have never said that I would somehow have meetings with these folks right away, that there wouldn't by any preparation for them."
Obama should have been more careful, however, about how he characterized those leaders whom American presidents met with.
There's a strong consensus among scholars that Mao ranks among the great tyrants of the 20th century, who did indeed cause "horrendous damage" to his country and others.
Khruschev is both loathsome and admirable, scholars say. He did have blood on his hands as Stalin's deputy in the Ukraine and the move to crush the Hungarian uprising in 1956. But he also freed prisoners from the Gulags and had a record as a reformist.
As for Gorbachev, his reforms sparked domestic disorder and a hard-liner could argue that as a younger man he helped perpetuate an evil system, but even Reagan gave him credit for bringing about the end of the Cold War, as does history.
Gorbachev is "not in a class with Khruschev who is not in a class with Mao when it comes to damaging his own country and the world," said William Taubman, a professor of political science at Amherst College who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Khruschev in 2004.
Stephen F. Cohen, a professor for Russian and Slavic studies at New York University, said Obama should have stuck to the thrust of his argument, that American presidents had a record of meeting with antagonistic heads of state, rather than getting into details.
"I think he violated a rule of political campaigning," Cohen said. "Be as imprecise as possible when making generalizations."
So while Obama is right that American presidents have met with some contentious leaders, he's wrong to say that they all had horrendous records. Gorbachev stands out as the strongest exception. We give Obama a Mostly True.