Senators Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama engaged in a much publicized quarrel during the recent CNN/YouTube Democratic debate over their responses to the following question:
QUESTION: 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?
Senators Obama and Clinton replied in the following way:
OBAMA: 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.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We’ve been talking about Iraq—one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.
They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.
COOPER: Senator Clinton?
CLINTON: 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.
While each response favors diplomacy and engagement over continued isolation, the fundamental rhetorical gap between the two Senators’ replies captured the attention of the media and the American public. The debate brought into focus a pervasive and increasingly significant issue—engagement versus isolation of states not aligned with current US foreign policy.
The fallout from the Clinton/Obama rift has been significant and highly politicized. According to CNN audience polls during the debates, Obama’s ratings climbed and remained high when discussing this issue while Clinton’s dipped and remained low (see the clip below).
However, during the subsequent coverage of the debate, most media pundits and talking-heads seemed to identify Clinton as the “winner.” An examination of the coverage raises an important question: Are the interests of the media elite out-of-step with the American public?
In a case that sheds some light on the possible rift between the public and the pundits, Fox News revealed the results of a Rasmussen poll, which asked, “Should the next president meet with the leaders of nations such as Iran, Syria and North Korea without preconditions?”
42% responded “Yes”
34% repsonded “No”
24% were “Not Sure.”
However, regular Fox News commentator Mort Kondracke’s rather patronizing response suggests that the media’s role in influencing policy remains out of step with public opinion:
KONDRACKE: That poll…the word ‘without preconditions’ is the key item. I don’t know that half the people understand what ‘without preconditions’ means. I mean without preconditions means you just go in and start talking, you know, and you don’t have any agenda practically. And I can’t believe that the American people—if they understood that—would vote that substantially in favor of it.
Watch this exchange in the short summary below.
Irancove @ August 5, 2007