I can see the ad now: Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Bashar al-Assad, and Hugo Chavez all strolling into the White House, and a grinning Barack Obama greeting them with a friendly "Welcome, boys; what do you want to talk about?"
If Obama gets close to the Democratic presidential nomination, pro-Hillary Clinton forces could air such an ad. If he wins the nomination, the Republicans could hammer him with such a spot.
And the junior senator from Illinois will not have much of a defense.
At the newfangled YouTube/CNN  debate on Monday night--during which YouTubers posed questions to the Democratic candidates via video--a fellow named Stephen Sorta of Diamond Bar, California, asked ,
In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, 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?
Obama took the question first. He replied,
I would. 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. Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
The crowd responded with applause. His answer seemed fine. It was only moments later that the problem became obvious. Sorta, who was also in the audience, put the same question to Senator Hillary Clinton. She said:
Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy.
And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.
Then CNN's Anderson Cooper, the moderator, turned to former Senator John Edwards and asked, "Would you meet with Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il?" Edwards echoed Clinton:
Yes, and I think actually Senator Clinton's right though. Before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work, the diplomacy, to make sure that that meeting's not going to be used for propaganda purposes, will not be used to just beat down the United States of America in the world community. But I think this is just a piece of a bigger question, which is, what do we actually do? What should the president of the United States do to restore America's moral leadership in the world. It's not enough just to meet with bad leaders. In addition to that, the world needs to hear from the president of the United States about who we are, what it is we represent.
Obama had suggested he would sit down with these leaders willy-nilly, no preconditions. Clinton and Edwards explained that that they would use diplomacy to try to improve relations with these nations and that such an effort could lead to a one-on-one with these heads of state.
Obama had responded from the gut, working off a correct critique of the Bush administration's skeptical approach toward diplomacy. But his answer lacked the sophistication of Clinton's and Edwards' replies. And this moment illustrated perhaps the top peril for the Obama campaign: with this post-9/11 presidential contest, to a large degree, a question of who should be the next commander in chief, any misstep related to foreign policy is a big deal for a candidate who has little experience in national security matters.
Clinton, with her years as First Lady and her stint as a member of the Senate armed services committee, and Edwards, with his tenure on the Senate intelligence committee, are steeped in the nuances, language, and minefields of foreign policy. (Among the second-tier candidates, Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson can boast extensive national security experience.) Though Obama was against the Iraq war before he was a senator, he has not developed his foreign policy chops. That's understandable; he's only been on the national scene for two years. (Prior to that, he was doing admirable work as a state legislator, a civil rights attorney, and a community organizer.) So he is more prone to commit mistakes in this area--perhaps stupid mistakes--that can be easily exploited by his opponents. And in the post-9/11 era, there's not much room in national politics for such errors.
During the 2004 Democratic presidential contest, Howard Dean had the foreign policy positions that resonated most with Democratic voters. He was opposed to the Iraq war; Senator John Kerry had voted to let George W. Bush invade Iraq. But Dean, like Obama, had not spent years talking and doing foreign policy. He made some dumb gaffes. On Meet the Press Tim Russert asked Dean this question :
Let's talk about the military budget. How many men and women would you have on active duty?
Dean flubbed his response:
I can't answer that question. And I don't know what the answer is.
Later in the race, Dean repeatedly referred to Russia as the "Soviet Union," a country that had not existed for 13 years.
Such remarks were not the downfall of Dean. But they did allow others to suggest he was not ready for prime time regarding national security matters. (Of course, neither was George W. Bush, but he had the good fortune of running in the last pre-9/11 election.) About Dean, Kerry said, "All the advisers in the world can't give Howard Dean the military and foreign policy experience, leadership skills...necessary to lead this country through dangerous times." Obama is obviously susceptible to a similar attack--from a Democrat or a Republican.
For Obama to have a chance of toppling front-running Clinton, he will have a near-perfect performance from now until the actual voting. During the YouTube debate, Obama generally did fine. But he did not differentiate himself from Clinton in a significant manner. After all, there is not much difference between their current positions. He did take a strong shot at her during a series of questions about the Iraq war:
One thing I have to say about Senator Clinton's comments a couple of moments ago. I think it's terrific that she's asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous. But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in. And that is something that too many of us failed to do. We failed to do it. And I do think that that is something that both Republicans and Democrats have to take responsibility for.
The crowd cheered, but one swing at Clinton does not a campaign make. Yes, there are months to go in the preprimary maneuvering, but at some point--probably sooner than later--Obama is going to have to make a move. Meanwhile, he also has to avoid such mistakes as promising to open the doors of the White House without conditions to Kim Jong Il and others of that ilk. He cannot let Stephen Sorta of Diamond Bar, California, trip him up again.
JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR  by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here .