In one of the roughest exchanges yet in the Democratic primary race, the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tussled Tuesday over when presidents should meet with the leaders of rogue states, including Iran and Syria.
The exchange between the two leading Democrats stemmed from the CNN-YouTube debate Monday night when a questioner, citing the success of the 1977 visit to Israel by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, asked if any of the candidates would meet with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
Obama (D-Ill.) said yes and Clinton (D-N.Y.) disagreed, setting the stage for the next dayâ€™s frenzied exchange of press releases and calls to reporters by proxies.
The Obama-Clinton contretemps comes as the pro-Israel lobby has made isolating Iran its signature issue and after Republicans attacked U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in April for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. It also has unfolded at a time when the former first lady leads comfortably in polls, but lags in fund-raising overall. She leads among Jewish donors, among the most generous givers to Democrats, but insiders say Obama has made considerable strides.
During the debate, Obama was firm in saying he would talk with the heads of Americaâ€™s international foes.
“And the reason is this,” he said. “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.”
The questioner, identified as Stephen, was in the audience at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina; he said he wanted Clinton’s views, too.
“I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year,” she said. “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.”
John Edwards, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina, agreed with Clinton.
“I think actually Senator Clinton’s right, though,” he said. “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.”
Clinton’s sharp divergence from Obama’s position was the first between the Democratic front-runners in what until now has been a mild debate season. Her staff seized upon it the next day, inviting reporters to chat with Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state who has endorsed Clinton.
“She gave a very sophisticated answer which showed her understanding of the whole process,” Albright said. “It is necessary to have lower-level people make the initial contact.”
The Albright call prompted a broadside from the Obama campaign.
Obama “showed his willingness to lead and ask tough questions on matters of war, and he offered a dramatic change from the Bush administration’s eight-year refusal to protect our security interests by using every tool of American power available — including diplomacy,” the campaign said in a statement.
“Senator Hillary Clinton, however, did nothing to dispel questions that have arisen as a result of her support for the war in Iraq,” a dig at Clinton’s 2002 vote. Clinton has since said she would not have supported the war had she known then what she knows now.
“When pressed,” Obama’s campaign said, “she gave no explanation for not demanding an exit strategy before we invaded a country riven by deep ethnic rivalries that portended civil war and a long, uncertain occupation.”
Clinton’s campaign enlisted her top Jewish backers in Congress in the fight.
“There’s a clear difference,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the powerful chairwoman of the House’s foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, told JTA. “Senator Obama committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world’s worst dictators without preconditions in the first year of office. It is a mistake to commit the power and prestige of the presidency without preparation.”