Sorting Out Preconditions

24 11 2008

With President-elect Barack Obama’s plan to announce Senator Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State this week, like many people I am wondering how their approaches will mesh. As former Secretary of State James Backer said on Meet the Press today there has to be a seamless relationship between Obama and Clinton on message, approach, and execution if its going to work.

Or as Thomas Friedman of the NYT recently noted, “Foreign leaders can spot daylight between a president and a secretary of state from 1,000 miles away. They know when they’re talking to the secretary of state alone and when they are talking through the secretary of state to the president. And when they think they are talking to the president, they sit up straight; and when they think they are talking only to the secretary of state, they slouch in their chairs.”

That said, few issues stand out more than whether or not the President of the United States should be willing to meet with dictators or authoritarian leaders without preconditions – a point of genuine disagreement between Obama and Clinton during the campaign. In the November 17th issue of the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza describes Obama’s reaction to the barrage of criticism from the Clinton camp and political pundits to his response to a provocative question in a July 2007 Democratic Presidential YouTube and CNN debate.

Several Obama aides believe that a crucial moment came after a debate sponsored by YouTube and CNN in July of 2007. During the debate, Obama was asked, “Would you be willing to meet separately, without preconditions, 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 answered simply, “I would.” Hillary Clinton pounced on the remark as hopelessly naïve, and her aides prepared to emphasize what appeared to be a winning argument. Obama’s aides had much the same reaction. “We know this is going to be the issue of the day,” Dan Pfeiffer, recalling a conference call the following morning, said. “We have the sense they’re going to come after us on it. And we’re all on the bus trying to figure out how to get out of it, how not to talk about it.” Obama, who was listening to part of the conversation, took the telephone from an aide and instructed his staff not to back down. According to an aide, Obama said something to the effect of “This is ridiculous. We met with Stalin. We met with Mao. The idea that we can’t meet with Ahmadinejad is ridiculous. This is a bunch of Washington-insider conventional wisdom that makes no sense. We should not run from this debate. We should have it.”

Now of course saying that you are willing to meet with certain heads of state does not mean you in fact will choose to do so. But Obama’s response to it does reveal a real difference in opinion. I wonder how this will be massaged. That is to say, if Clinton is instructed to meet with Hugo Chavez or Raul Castro or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Obama will her private disagreements, assuming she has any, become public? Or if they are never leaked to press will those leaders suspect that they can exploit whatever daylight may exist between the President-elect Obama and in-coming Secretary of State Clinton?

Perhaps, those questions will remain moot because it may be an option that Obama never truly chooses to exercise, whether Clinton objects to it or not.  For the most part, Obama and Clinton will most likely seek to exert pressure on certain leaders to at least give the appearance that they are negotiating from a position of strength rather than one of weakness or desperation, which is how some will try to portray it.

At any rate, I bet before taking the gig for top diplomat, Clinton had all sorts of preconditions for Obama and vice versa.

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