WASHINGTON - - Democrat Barack Obama accused Hillary Clinton on Thursday of backing a foreign policy toward hostile nations no different than U.S. President George W. Bush's in an escalation of their war of words this week.
Obama, an Illinois senator, fired back at New York Sen. Clinton for calling him "irresponsible and naive" for saying during a CNN/YouTube debate on Monday that he would be willing to meet without preconditions the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela during his first year in office.
The dust-up between the two top contenders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the November 2008 election has been the most dramatic spat thus far in the campaign.
Clinton has tried to portray herself as the most experienced option among Democrats, far more prepared to be commander-in-chief than Obama, who has been in the U.S. Senate less than three years compared to her eight years as first lady to President Bill Clinton and senator since 2001.
Clinton took a more cautious approach to a debate question about meeting troublesome world leaders, arguing the president should only meet with such leaders after lower-level diplomatic spadework is completed.
Obama, in a conference call with reporters, said that is Bush's position as well.
"The Bush administration's policy is to say that we will not talk to these countries unless they meet various preconditions. That's their explicit policy," Obama said.
At the same time, Obama seemed to walk back a little bit from his debate position, saying diplomatic preparation would be necessary before presidential meetings.
"Nobody expects that you would suddenly just sit down with them for coffee without having done the appropriate groundwork. But the question was, would you meet them without preconditions, and part of the Bush doctrine has been to say no," he said.
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"You'll have to ask Senator Clinton what differentiates her position from theirs," Obama added.
Bush considers Iran a brewing nuclear menace and has refused to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he has allowed U.S. diplomats to meet Iranians about U.S. charges that Iran is stirring up trouble in Iraq.
He has allowed diplomatic contacts with North Korea, Syria and Venezuela while having no dealings with communist Cuba. Acting Cuban President Raul Castro said on Thursday he would welcome talks with the United States after Bush leaves office.
Some Democrats believe Bush may have missed opportunities for diplomatic progress by refusing to meet some of these leaders. Critics say the president has alienated much of the world with a foreign policy they call arrogant, particularly with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Obama made a case for talking to leaders shunned by the United States.
"The fact of the matter is when we talk to world leaders, it give us the opportunity to speak about our ideals, our values and our interests, and I am not afraid to have that conversation with anybody," he said.
He said if he were to sit down with the Iranian president, "I will send a strong message that Israel is our friend, that we will assist in their security and that we don't find nuclear weapons acceptable as Iran is currently envisioning it."
"That's not a propaganda coup for the president of Iran," he said. He added that the debate over the issue was whether to pursue conventional thinking or consider new ideas.
© 2007 Reuters