In the past couple of weeks, anyone watching the news now knows exactly what Hillary Clinton (and some of her fellow candidates) thinks of her main rival for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama. According to her, the man from Illinois is “irresponsible and frankly naïve.”
The incident that prompted Clinton to go negative this early into the campaign was the recent YouTube/CNN debate where Obama stated that he was willing to meet with America’s enemies in the first year of his Presidency. His other competitors piled on after he said that he was willing to order troops into the mountains of Pakistan to fight the real war against Al Qaeda.
What is shocking about Clinton’s criticism of Obama is that she used to agree with him. In February Clinton said, “You don’t refuse to talk to bad people. I think life is filled with uncomfortable situations where you have to deal with people you might not like. I’m sort of an expert on that. I have consistently urged the president to talk to Iran and talk to Syria. I think it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.” Now however, Clinton wants to ridicule Obama for following exactly that policy. Who knew that Clinton had taken on Mitt Romney as a campaign advisor?
As Obama pointed out after the debate, he “didn’t say these guys were going to come for a cup of coffee some afternoon.” But he is right about the need for meetings with these leaders. In the past six years, the Bush administration’s approach of not talking with foreign leaders has done nothing to help the war on terror, or bolster America’s image in the world. This sort of policy is how middle schoolers deal with each other, not how the world’s last remaining superpower, and its greatest democracy should conduct foreign affairs.
America should never fear to negotiate with its adversaries. And at some point, regardless of whether we want to or not, we will have to negotiate with our enemies. This is especially true in Iraq, where we will have to engage with Iran and Syria, so we can leave at least a somewhat stable country behind. And as Hillary Clinton observed before she changed her position, negotiating with our enemies is not a sign of weakness. Ronald Reagan knew this when he talked with the Soviet Union at the same time he called it an evil empire. Richard Nixon knew it when he went to China.
But somehow we’re supposed to believe that Clinton’s answer was more nuanced and seasoned. I guess it is by the standards of the Washington foreign policy establishment—the same establishment that was gung ho about the war in Iraq. This is not to discount these thinkers entirely. Rather, it is to suggest that we shouldn’t value the views of a handful of the Washington elite more than we do basic common sense or historical precedent.
Clinton obviously thought she could gain some advantage by attacking Obama’s remarks in the debate. To her chagrin, most Democrats agree with Obama. A recent Rasmussen poll found that a full 55% of Democrats think we should negotiate with our enemies, while only 22% agree with Clinton’s current position. The general electorate is more divided, but a plurality still favors such relations.
While Clinton and the other candidates are trying to demonstrate how tough they’ll be on terrorism, Obama is the only one who has given us a clear plan of how he intends to win the war on terror. He was criticized for indicating that he would send soldiers into Pakistan if he had to. But with terrorists in the mountains plotting another strike, we may have no other option. Before he is labeled inexperienced again, I would like to see a coherent strategy from his opponents about how to fight Islamic extremists.
At the end of the day, I find it incredible that Clinton (and others) has the chutzpah to make the charges she has about Obama. If she is so wise, and so clever, and so infinitively more experienced, then how could she have authorized George Bush to go to war without asking for an exit strategy, or at least bothering to read the National Intelligence Estimate? Now that is irresponsible and frankly naive.
Obama however, demonstrated a prescience and a political courage sorely missing from political leaders in Washington in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. In a 2002 speech Obama said, “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” That sure doesn’t sound naïve to me.