Parsing and the Long Campaign

17 08 2007

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg has an interesting piece on the trading of barbs between Sen. H. Clinton and Sen. Obama on foreign policy since the CNN/YouTube debates a few weeks ago. Several stiff-necked pudits criticized Obama for either not being clear-headed or tough-minded or politically savy enough to give the most polished response. But here is what Hertzberg had to say:

Obama didn’t commit to meeting with the quintet of villains; he expressed a willingness to do so, which is not the same thing. What he advocated was “send[ing] a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria,” a signal Clinton has been sending, too. “Without precondition” does not mean without preparation. Nor is it inconsistent with waiting until one has a better idea of the probable outcome. It simply means being ready to sit down and negotiate even if no concessions have been made in advance. On the other hand, although Clinton voted to authorize force against Iraq, it’s crystal clear that she would not have gone to war there had she been President. And “Bush-Cheney lite”? Them’s fightin’ words, and most unfair ones.

I agree wholeheartedly. Plus, being willing does not mean you will ever actually do it. It just means you are willing. And of course, Obama is deliberately provoking a policy dispute here, because it would benefit his campaign, if Hillary, as the frontrunner, was forced to engage him on the merits on his position instead of summarily dismissing them just another competitor.

But it’s hard to tease out a substantive policy difference between Obama Clinton on this issue because it speaks more to communication style rather than experience. Obama is more direct in expressing his positions whereas Clinton wants to disguise or downplay them. For example, a few weeks after the CNN/YouTube debate Obama said he would attack al-Qaeda in northern Pakistan, if he had actionable intelligence and President Musharraf was unable able to eradicate them, he was simply affirming official U.S. policy. Yes you read right. It’s the official policy of the United States of America. Clinton said uttering such words were irresponsible and unpresidential. But to my knowledge she never said she disagreed the policy or even offered tamed criticism of it.

Lets also look at what Obama told the Associated Press about using nuclear weapons.

“I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance,” Obama said, with a pause, “involving civilians.” Then he quickly added, “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.”

Involving civilians — that’s an important qualifier, but how different is that from Hillary’s position. Lets see what she has said about nukes.

Well, I have said publicly no option should be off the table, but I would certainly take nuclear weapons off the table. And this administration has been very willing to talk about using nuclear weapons in a way we haven’t seen since the dawn of a nuclear age. I think that’s a terrible mistake.

Now how different is that really than what Obama has said. Perhaps, I am a little slow on the draw, but I don’t see much daylight here.

Just think about how much more parsing we will continue until the primary season starts.

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