Barack Obama's original answer seemed crystal clear: last July, asked whether he would meet with the "leaders" of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea "without precondition," during his first year as president, he quickly answered yes.
The Obama campaign is now offering a more nuanced approach that would not necessarily include a presidential meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and that stresses diplomatic work that would take place before any such meetings take place.
"I have to say I completely disagree that people have been walking back from anything," Obama said. "They may be correcting the characterizations or distortions of John McCain or others of what I said. What I said was I would meet with our adversaries, including Iran, including Venezuela, including Cuba, including North Korea, without preconditions, but that does not mean without preparation."
"Whether Ahmadinejad is the right person to meet with right now, we don't even know how much power he is going to have a year from now," he added. "He is not the most powerful person in Iran. And my expectation, obviously, would be to meet with those people who can actually make decisions in terms of actually having them stand down on nuclear weapons or stopping funding [of] Hamas or Hezbollah or meddling in the affairs of Iraq."
The point is that I would not refuse to meet until they agree to every position that we want, but that doesn't mean that we would not have preparation," he continued. "The preparation would involve starting with low level, lower-level diplomatic contacts, having our diplomatic core work through with Iranian counterparts -- an agenda. But what I have said is that, at some point, I would be willing to meet."
The one thing that struck me about this position is just how unbelievably confusing it is. It is vague just who he would meet with, when, and under what circumstances. It is really still unclear if he does intend to meet with Ahmadinejad. Furthermore, his surrogates offer all sorts of explanations and not all of them are the same as his.
Asked about Obama's original statement Tuesday morning on CNN, former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a top Obama adviser and supporter, said top-level meetings would not be immediate -- and would not happen without preliminary extensive diplomatic work.
Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy adviser, said Monday that Obama's meetings with Iranian leaders might not include Ahmadinejad.
"He said he'd meet with the appropriate Iranian leaders. He hasn't named who that leader will be," Rice said on CNN. "It would be the appropriate Iranian leadership at the appropriate time -- not necessarily Ahmadinejad."
Now, frankly, one could argue that there is little difference between Bush's policy and Obama's. After all, Ryan Crocker is already meeting with Iranian emissaries about their role in Iraq. If Obama's only plan is to dispatch low level diplomats to feel out the Iranians, then why did he raise such a stink over Bush's speech? Of course, the other problem is that his emmissaries have a different version than one he has had
Democrat Barack Obama says he probably wouldn’t have invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University but would be willing as president to meet with the Iranian leader as a way to protect U.S. interests.
So, at this point the position is shall we say nuanced. Of course, this is the same kind of nuance that got John Kerry in all sorts of trouble. What the position really is frankly is confusing. He may or may not meet with Ahmadinejad. It may or may not have any preconditions. It may or may not be in the first year.
Furthermore, he has now become fond of the term preparations. That is one of those "bumper sticker" ideas that Obama proclaims is the sort of politics he doesn't like. There is an old saying in politics. Either you define yourself or your enemies define you. Now, since Obama's own explanations are unclear, this gives his enemies room to define it for him. That's why John McCain has turned into a broken record about Obama's insistence on meeting with Ahmadinejad himself in the first year with NO preconditions. Clearly, McCain sees that particular position to be one that he can exploit and he's exploiting it. Obama, on the other hand, has a muddled message, and thus he allows his opponents to define the issue for him.
The second thing that struck me is just how naive the position is. Obama fully believes that diplomacy is the way to get the Iranians to agree to stop doing many of the things that we have a problem with. Obama seems to believe that one on one meetings are what is needed in order to get the Iranians to stop their nuclear program, threatening Israel, and to stop meddling in Iraq. Of course, this is silly. The Iranians aren't going to stop being evil just because Obama intends to charm them.
What we are left with is a muddled, vague, and very naive foreign policy vision in which Obama may or may not meet with Ahmadinejad depending on who is speaking and when. It is also a foreign policy that foolishly believes that evil can be turned to good just by charm. That is in fact what President Bush railed against in Jerusalem.
The second article may have even more significance.
Amer Taheri suggests that Obama's stance has already strengthened Ahmadinejad's position.
The Security Council isn't asking the Islamic Republic to do something dishonorable, humiliating or illegal. All it's asking Ahmadinejad to do is to stop cheating - something the Islamic Republic itself has admitted it has done for 18 years. The Security Council has invited Iran to "suspend" - not even to scrap - a uranium-enrichment program clearly destined for making bombs, in violation of the NPT.
Iran has not a single nuclear-power station and thus doesn't need enriched uranium - except for making bombs. Its sole nuclear plant is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2009. But that can't use the type of uranium that Iran is enriching; the station requires fuel of a different "formula," supplied by Russia, which is building the project, for the next 10 years. (And the Russians have offered to provide fuel for the plant's entire lifetime of 37 years.)
Another precondition asks Tehran to explain why it is building a heavy-water plant at Arak - when it has absolutely no plans for plutonium-based nuclear-power stations. The Arak plant's only imaginable use is to produce material for nuclear warheads.
Finally, the IAEA and the Security Council are asking Tehran to allow international inspectors access to all sites related to the nuclear project - access that Iran is obliged to provide under the NPT.
In short, the minimum show of goodwill on Ahmadinejad's part would be to comply with the UN resolutions before he goes to the White House for talks with President Obama on other issues.
Obama's words on "preconditions" have helped ease domestic pressure on Ahmadinejad to comply with the United Nations and the IAEA. The Iranian president is telling his domestic critics to shut up until after the US election. Why, after all, should he make concessions that a putative President Obama has already dismissed as unnecessary?
Taheri is no ideologue and he is well respected for his knowledge of the Middle East. It is clear that the implication is that Ahmadinejad is rooting for an Obama Presidency.
Finally, Obama is now walking on egg shells the rest of the campaign. He is already waiting for the next shoe drop vis a vis Reverend Wright. He has now tied himself to the worst tyrants in the world: Ahmadinejad, Castro, and Chavez. The next time the spew venom at Israel, crackdown on dissidents, or make other anti American statements, his opponents will be there to point out that he wants to meet with them without pre conditions.
Imagine the next fiery speech that Hugo Chavez gives in which he compares the U.S. to satan. John McCain will be there to point out that Barack Obama has promised to meet with Chavez WITHOUT pre conditions.
What will Obama's answer be? If he suddenly reverses course and says he won't meet with him he looks weak. If he says that such statements are unacceptable but that they won't preclude a meeting,he looks naive. The simple fact is that this policy will become an albatross around his neck the rest of the campaign, and it is up to his opponents to tighten it.<