In Monday’s debate, and with the benefit of having time to think through her response, HillaryClinton posed as the foreign policy sophisticate to Barack Obama the bold leader who did not hesitate to say that he would meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, andVenezuela. My colleague David Corn argues that Obama has committed a majorblunder reflecting his lack of foreign policy experience.
(My colleague Ari Berman posted his smart and sharp counter to David’s argument on behalf of those like Hillary Clinton who are “steeped in the nuances, language and minefields of foreign policy.” But I feel strongly enough to weigh in on this debate.)
Those “nuances and minefields” can also be traps. Witness how far Clinton’s nuanced experience got her when confronted with the 2002 Iraq war resolution.
David may well be right that Obama’s opponents will try to exploit hisresponse. But from a foreign policy point of view was Obama’s response sowrong and Clinton’s so right? Her husband’s administration generally followedHillary’s approach; during his two terms President Clinton did not meet withFidel Castro or with Hugo Chavez or with the leaders of Iran, Syria, and NorthKorea –while generally pursuing a policy of trying to isolate thesecountries. But what did the Clinton approach actually accomplish? The respective regimes of Castro in Cuba and Chavezin Venezuela have only grown stronger, and more influential in LatinAmerica. Although Syria was forced to withdraw its military forces fromLebanon last year, the regime of Bashar Assad is as firmly entrenched inpower as was his father’s. And in spite of the odious politics and qualities ofAhmadinejad, Iran carries more weight in the Middle East than it did doingthe early 1990s while American power and standing has declined considerably.
Indeed, both Clinton and Bush may have missed a historic opportunity toopen a new chapter with Iran when reformer Mohamed Khatemi was elected in1997. Had President Clinton taken the bold step Obama suggested and had metwithout precondition with President Khatemi in 1998 or ’99 instead of pursuingsanctions, might not the democratic reformers be in power in Iran? Might wenot have a healthy and growing trading relationship with an economicallyreformed Iran? Might Iran have capped its nuclear program and cooperatedwith us in managing regional relations including the peaceful downfall ofSaddam Hussein? We do not know because the foreign policy sophisticatesthought it was too politically risky for President Clinton to make such abold move.
Above all, foreign policy is a matter of simultaneouslyprojecting American confidence and American humility. In signaling that hewas willing to meet with the leaders of these countries, Obama was signalingthat the United States has the confidence in its values to meet with anyone.But he also signaled a certain humility that reflects the understanding thatthe next president must reach out to the rest of the world and not merelyissue conditions from the White House and threaten military force if it doesnot get its way.