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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley May 22, 2008

SUMMARY: In what looks to be the new political wedge of this campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama exchange fire on the issue of presidential-level diplomacy.

If the flurry of back-and-forth comments between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama is any indication, the issue of whether to meet with the leaders of rogue governments may shape up to be one of the defining issues of the presidential campaign in the coming months.

It all started with a question during a CNN/YouTube debate on July 24, 2007.

"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?"

"I would," Obama said. "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."

In recent weeks, McCain has seized on that position to attack Obama as naive and reckless.

We examined McCain's characterization that "Senator Obama has declared, and repeatedly reaffirmed his intention to meet the president of Iran without any preconditions."

Obama's response to that has essentially amounted to, Yeah, I said I'd meet with enemy leaders and I'll say it again.

But McCain's comments specifically single out the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is well known for his anti-America, anti-Israel rhetoric. McCain's campaign claims Obama's folks have recently tried to backpedal a bit on Obama's stated position.

When asked in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer how Obama could defend meeting without preconditions with Ahmadinejad, Obama's senior foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, said Obama had only promised he'd meet with the appropriate Iranian leadership, "not necessarily Ahmadinejad."

We found that in the context of several interviews, Obama clearly counts Ahmadinejad among those with whom he would meet. We ruled McCain's statement to be True.

We also checked a statement in which McCain chastised Obama for minimizing the threat from Iran.

"Sen. Obama claimed that the threat Iran poses to our security is 'tiny' compared to the threat once posed by the former Soviet Union," McCain said before the National Restaurant Association in Chicago on May 19, 2008. "Obviously, Iran isn't a superpower and doesn't possess the military power the Soviet Union had. But that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant.

"On the contrary, right now Iran provides some of the deadliest explosive devices used in Iraq to kill our soldiers. They are the chief sponsor of Shia extremists in Iraq, and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. ... Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that danger would become very dire, indeed. They might not be a superpower, but the threat the government of Iran poses is anything but 'tiny.' "

While McCain started off accurately quoting Obama, he then took liberties when he dropped the comparison to the Soviet Union and claimed Obama characterized Iran as a "tiny" or "insignificant" threat. What Obama said was this: "Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us. And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying we're going to wipe you off the planet."

Obama only characterized Iran as tiny compared to the threat faced by the Soviet Union, which he noted had a significant nuclear arsenal. He has consistently called Iran a "grave" threat, as he did again after McCain made his comments. We ruled this McCain statement to be False.

Even President Bush may have taken a shot at Obama in remarks made to members of the Knesset in Israel on May 15, 2008:

"Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush said.

Bush later claimed the comment was not directed at Obama. But Obama certainly took it that way.

Obama called it a "false political attack."

"Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power – including tough, principled, and direct diplomacy — to pressure countries like Iran and Syria," Obama said. "George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president's extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel."

In a speech in Billings, Mont., on May 19, 2008, Obama hit again on the fear theme.

"So, you know, for all their tough talk, one of the things you have to ask yourself is: What are George Bush and John McCain afraid of? Demanding that a country meets all your conditions before you meet with them, that's not a strategy; it's just naive, wishful thinking. I'm not afraid that we'll lose some propaganda fight with a dictator."

McCain predictably shot back a fiery response in Arlington, Va., two days later.

"He now claims that some 'fear' to 'negotiate' with the likes of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who has called Israel a 'stinking corpse' or Ayatollah Khamenei, who called Israel a 'cancerous tumor.' I have news for Sen. Obama: I have met some very bad people before in my life. It is not fear that drives my opposition to unconditional meetings with Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Kim Jong Il, and Raul Castro; rather it is my clear understanding that such a course will fail to eliminate the threat posed by these rogue regimes. I don't fear to negotiate. Instead I have the knowledge and experience to understand the dangerous consequences of a naive approach to presidential summits based entirely on emotion."

What we have is a legitimate and important wedge issue on foreign relations, and two candidates convinced their opposing arguments will resonate with the American public. So expect a lot more discussion of nuances of preconditions vs. preparation. It looks like the debate on this issue is just getting started.

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Our Sources

CNN, "CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate transcript" July 24, 2007

Wall Street Journal, "Prepared Text of Bush's Knesset Speech" May 15, 2008

ABC News, "Obama's Evolving Take on Meeting With Iran" by Rick Klein, May 20, 2008

YouTube, "Obama's remarks on Iran in Pendelton, Ore." May 18, 2008

The Page Blog, "McCain's Remarks on Obama and Iran to the National Restaurant Association" May 19, 2008

John McCain 2008, "John McCain On Senator Obama Calling The Threat From Iran 'Tiny'"

Politico, "Obama on Iran: What's McCain afraid of?" Ben Smith Blog, May 19, 2008

Time, "More McCain and Ahmadinejad" Posted by Joe Klein on Swampland blog, May 20, 2008

YouTube, "Barack Obama on Meet the Press" Nov. 11, 2007

Time, "Transcript of Obama Presser" Watertown, South Dakota, May 16, 2008

AP, "McCain hammers Obama on national security" by Libby Quaid, May 20, 2008

MSNBC, "Obama Fires Back at McCain" by Mark Murray for First read blog, May 19, 2008

Interview with Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 19, 2008

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