Why Obama Got it Right

In Monday's debate, and with the benefit of having time to think through her response, Hillary Clinton posed as the foreign policy sophisticate to Barack Obama the bold leader who did not hesitate to say that he would meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. My colleague David Corn argues that Obama has committed a major blunder reflecting his lack of foreign policy experience.

(My colleague Ari Berman posted his smart and sharp counter to David's argument on behalf of those like Hillary Clinton who are "steeped in the nuances, language and minefields of foreign policy." But I feel strongly enough to weigh in on this debate.)

Those "nuances and minefields" can also be traps. Witness how far Clinton's nuanced experience got her when confronted with the 2002 Iraq war resolution.

David may well be right that Obama's opponents will try to exploit his response. But from a foreign policy point of view was Obama's response so wrong and Clinton's so right? Her husband's administration generally followed Hillary's approach; during his two terms President Clinton did not meet with Fidel Castro or with Hugo Chavez or with the leaders of Iran, Syria, and North Korea --while generally pursuing a policy of trying to isolate these countries. But what did the Clinton approach actually accomplish? The respective regimes of Castro in Cuba and Chavez in Venezuela have only grown stronger, and more influential in Latin America. Although Syria was forced to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon last year, the regime of Bashar Assad is as firmly entrenched in power as was his father's. And in spite of the odious politics and qualities of Ahmadinejad, Iran carries more weight in the Middle East than it did doing the early 1990s while American power and standing has declined considerably.

Indeed, both Clinton and Bush may have missed a historic opportunity to open a new chapter with Iran when reformer Mohamed Khatemi was elected in 1997. Had President Clinton taken the bold step Obama suggested and had met without precondition with President Khatemi in 1998 or '99 instead of pursuing sanctions, might not the democratic reformers be in power in Iran? Might we not have a healthy and growing trading relationship with an economically reformed Iran? Might Iran have capped its nuclear program and cooperated with us in managing regional relations including the peaceful downfall of Saddam Hussein? We do not know because the foreign policy sophisticates thought it was too politically risky for President Clinton to make such a bold move.

Above all, foreign policy is a matter of simultaneously projecting American confidence and American humility. In signaling that he was willing to meet with the leaders of these countries, Obama was signaling that the United States has the confidence in its values to meet with anyone. But he also signaled a certain humility that reflects the understanding that the next president must reach out to the rest of the world and not merely issue conditions from the White House and threaten military force if it does not get its way.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

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