FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- Editorial about Obama and Clinton's spat after YouTube debate
What seemed like a ``gotcha'' moment in the middle of a debate that seemed to be more about entertainment than substance has grown into a bone of contention between the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. It may yet prove to be an entry point into a needed foreign policy discussion.
A YouTube questioner in Monday's debate asked if the candidates would be willing to meet, during their first year in office, with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Syria and North Korea. Sen. Barack Obama answered yes. Sen. Hillary Clinton answered no.
Most of the criticism in the days since has landed on Obama for showing his foreign policy inexperience. As Clinton explained in her answer, foreign leaders can use such meetings for propaganda. Without preparation, the meeting can make situations worse.
She underlined her point the next day, describing Obama's answer as ``naive.''
The hardball politics had begun, and Obama responded in kind, criticizing Clinton's view of diplomacy as ``Bush-Cheney lite.''
Where Clinton is vulnerable is with those voters who translate her establishment view of foreign policy as simply more of the same. Those voters, including many who will vote in Democratic primaries, are skeptical of the practice of demonizing, isolating and confronting foreign leaders.
Consider the Clinton record: Over eight years in the White House -- if Clinton is going to claim foreign policy expertise based on her tenure as first lady, she'll have to defend her husband's record -- the Clintons made no effort to talk directly to Cuba's Fidel Castro under any conditions. Their policy toward Cuba was identical to those of Republican presidents who preceded and followed them, a policy of isolating foreign leaders they disapprove of.
That policy, based on the dubious premise that economic hardship would cause the Cubans to overthrow Castro, has been a failure for nearly 50 years. The bipartisan policy of isolating Iran's rulers has been similarly fruitless. Clinton didn't veer from that policy either, nor, with the exception of a nuclear agreement that later failed, did the Clintons successfully engage North Korea.
The one case where the Clinton administration engaged a previously demonized enemy was with Vietnam. Increased trade and improved conditions within Vietnam have shown that to be a wise move, but it was a move Clinton was dragged into by the fence-mending efforts of Sens. John McCain and John Kerry.
Here's Hillary Clinton's other vulnerability on this score: The reason the Clintons refused to deal with the likes of Cuba and Iran had more to do with domestic politics than foreign policy. They didn't want to look like they were ``soft'' on America's enemies or weak on defense. That's the same reason most assume Hillary Clinton supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.
That's old thinking: Whip up public opinion against someone like Saddam Hussein -- or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez or Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and then refuse to deal with that country until it picks leaders more to America's liking. History has shown that approach pays off with some voters.
But history has also shown that when America isolates such leaders, it only makes them more popular at home and more intransigent on the world stage.
The sound bites generated so far don't begin to answer the question of what's the best way for the United States to deal with rogue regimes, but the campaign is young -- and it has come upon a question that deserves serious debate.
MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News