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July 27, 2007


One substantive point that the Obama/Clinton spat has laid bare is the odd, almost talismanic, power that "negotiating" has amassed in the Bush era. Because the current administration blatantly refuses to negotiate, the willingness to meet with non-allied, even hostile, leaders has become a signifier for being "Not George W. Bush" in foreign policy terms. That, in a sense, is what Clinton and Obama are fighting about. Hence Obama's rejoinder that "I don't want a continuation of Bush-Cheney. I don't want Bush-Cheney-lite."

On the actual topic of negotiations, Obama and Clinton don't, as far as I can tell, differ much. Clinton, the supposed anti-negotiations side of the fight, has 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.”

The mere willingness to negotiate, however, isn't actually that telling of a characteristic. Bush's intransigence on the subject has made it seem a bigger deal than it really is. But you can negotiate as part of liberal, even dovish, approach, and you can negotiate as a step to going to war. Clinton justified her willingness to negotiate with Iran to AIPAC by telling them that "I also want to send a message, if we ever do have to take more drastic action, to the rest of the world that we exhausted all possibilities." Such negotiations wouldn't be terribly different than the current White House's policies. They're just part of a smarter PR strategy.

So to say that Clinton and Obama are saying the same things on whether they'd meet with Chavez isn't the same as saying that they'd say the same thing to Chavez. The mere willingness to negotiate just isn't very meaningful. It's only Bush's atrociously bad example that has turned so basic and neutral a tool of foreign policy as negotiations into a signifier of deeply progressive instincts.

July 27, 2007 | Permalink


"On the actual topic of negotiations, Obama and Clinton don't, as far as I can tell, differ much ... So to say that Clinton and Obama are saying the same things on whether they'd meet with Chavez isn't the same as saying that they'd say the same thing to Chavez."

But of course, Clinton and Obama aren't fighting about what they'd say to Chavez. They're fighting about...

I'm sorry. Remind me exactly what it is they're fighting about?

Or as Edwards said today:

If you're looking for what’s wrong in Washington, why the system is broken, why the system doesn’t work, one perfect example is what's been happening over the last four days. We’ve had two good people, Democratic candidates for president, who’ve spent their time attacking each other, instead of attacking the problems that this country’s faced.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 27, 2007 1:13:44 PM

Very good point, Ezra. A leader does not go into negotiations as a tabula rasa. He or she starts with a set of assumptions and attitudes that are very important in determining the direction and outcome of negotiations.

Posted by: Katherine | Jul 27, 2007 1:13:45 PM

The mere willingness to negotiate, however, isn't actually that telling of a characteristic.

"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war".
Famous limp-wristed liberal Winston Churchill, in remarks at a White House luncheon, June 26, 1954

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Jul 27, 2007 1:19:46 PM

Negotiation as a step to war? This is way off. Clinton's quote doesn't warrant such a remark. She had the courage to say to AIPAC that we need to talk with Iran, and she put it in terms they could understand. But her model, to them, was the Cold War, not a hot war. Being clearly ready for the hot war is an essential part of the cold war/containment strategy. It doesn't exclude positive negotiations, and the Cold War was marked by a fair amount of that.

I think you've got this at least partly, maybe largely, backwards, that Obama and Clinton have expressed clearly different views about summitry, while they haven't made clear any difference in what they would negotiate for. Obama, whether he really meant it or not, staked out a position that he would meet without preconditions, while Clinton clearly won't. Neither has said negotiations would be all kisses and flowers or all warnings and fighting. I'm confident both candidates would include both peaceful and forceful elements.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 27, 2007 1:29:13 PM

"I'm sorry. Remind me exactly what it is they're fighting about?"

The meaning of preconditions, I think.

As an Edwards supporter, I'm in heaven. Obama finally engaged Clinton but manages not to do it in regard to her vote on Iraq (which is also a weakness for Edwards) and compares a Democrat with favorability ratings among Dems in the nineties to Dick Cheney and Axelrod can't even bring himself to admit that Obama was talking about Hillary. Meanwhile Republicans like Romney and McCain are defending Hillary, and Wolfson is making like a Republican and playing the appeasing-a-Holocaust-denier card.

All this while Edwards, on the heels of a poll showing him still leading in Iowa, is touting a progressive-populist tax cut plan that's getting blasted by Romney.

All going according to plan, I guess.

Posted by: david mizner | Jul 27, 2007 1:29:30 PM

Negotiation can be considered a sign of weakness. Under certain circumstances.

Lets say that your country has loudly proclaimed that another country is evil incarnate, and that you will never negotiate with them. You won't even talk to them because that would acknowledge their right to exist. You intend to completely shun them forever, or until they change their wicked ways. You keep saying this for 8 years.

Then you say, meh, lets do lunch!

That undermines your credibility.

Of course, much like how the solution to loss of credibility when your nation pulls out of a disastrous war is to avoid disastrous wars, the solution to looking stupid because you went back on your stupid ultimatum is to stop making stupid ultimatums.

Posted by: Patrick | Jul 27, 2007 2:29:51 PM

It's interesting how, when addressing the answers to this question by the candidates, everybody seems to ignore the preface the questioner gave to it:


In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, 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?"

I think that's worth noting, because it's true that Sadat did not demand any concessions beforehand from Egypt's sworn enemy, Israel, before making the trip and engaging in the diplomacy necessary to come to an agreement.

There are two other interesting points as well. One is that making certain demands before actually meeting is a way of not being serious about meetings in the first place, since no party would make concessions which would ostensibly be part of the proposed negotiations before those negotiations even take place. This is of a piece with the Bush administration's attitude that merely talking to someone is some kind of reward.

The second point is that our refusal to meet is at least as likely to be valuable propaganda for the foreign leader as would our appearance with him or her at a meeting. All these leaders need do is say "see, we have offered to meet with the President to attempt to iron out our differences, but he would rather just strike a petulant, belligerent stance of dismissing us as evil and not worthy of talking to".

This second strategy has, in the case of Iran, the additional virtue of actually having been true.


Nobody says you need to give away the store in negotiations. Not even being willing to talk is not the same as being a tough negotiator.

Posted by: H.L. Mencken | Jul 27, 2007 2:50:56 PM

H.L., the blanket ban on talking to anyone whom you don't already agree with is part-and-parcel of the Right's Manichaean world view. You can't talk to the Devil -- not even talks about talks. And then when you do talk, they have to be not-talks. (Cf Bush junta dealings with N. Korea, for example)

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Jul 27, 2007 4:20:12 PM

Well that's what comes from living for eight years under government by tantrum and avoiding outbursts.

This slick practice of trying always to stay above the fray is neither smart nor tolerable (or even staying above the fray but remaining outside the target reach of criticism and, not coincidentailly, the sphere of real influence.)

It's a futile, ill-conceived pre-emptive attempt to avoid future outrageous engagement with the two-year old foot-stomping mentality, outrageous accusations and ultimata from the untrammeled GOP spoonbangers over at the Republican Palace.

They're all seasoned veterans of the eight year Flung Feces and Mashed Veggie Wars under President Baby and his Screaming Chickenhawks.

They don't negotiate with terrorists / Democrats / Congress / Constitutional pussies / foreign allies or enemies or a combination / the voting public / most of the known world ...

AND NO ONE CAN MAKE'EM. Nyah. They get very cramky at the barest hint of a suggestion so the Bad Hillary Lady and the Nice Sounding Fixer Upper Guy better not.

Posted by: Ellie | Jul 27, 2007 6:20:36 PM

I tend to fall into the camp that thinks there was a substantive difference highlighted at the start of this: Obama essentially walked into an amateur mistake of saying he'd meet with a number of national leaders without preconditions when a more judicious answer would have been about "laying groundwork" as Ezra suggested in the earlier post, with an eventual meeting if some conditions were met. If nothing else, Clinton's tsking Obama to town over the possibility of meeting Castro handed her the likely victory in Florida's (and maybe even New Jersy's) primary because if there's a one-issue group of voters, it's anti-Castro Cubans. That's political savvy, and it's Clinton natural strength in this thing.

Now, in the past 36 hours or so, the news networks have of course gone where they always do, making this a personal "he said/she said" controversy that's really quite embarrassing. The high schoolish coverage is helping no one. And none of this helps Edwards, unfortunately, as it only underlines that Obama has his eye on beating Hillary Clinton and pays Edwards no attention at all.

And are the three of them really very far apart on the actual topic of negotiating? I don't think so; their policy goals vis-a-vis the "axis of evil" types don't seem wildly different. But I think Clinton made real headway in reminding people that if she wins, she'll arrive as a seasoned leader with a sharp foreign policy team. I think Obama can fix the impression of not being seasoned enough, but the innocence of his error is a reminder that he's a newbie and needs time, which he doesn't necessarily have. That can't help. Overall, I think the big winners still are Democrats overall, by sweeping pretty much every Republican off the news programs to debate who can handle foreign policy in a serious way. That's going to do serious damage to the "soft on foreign affairs" attacks the right wants to put out there...

Posted by: weboy | Jul 27, 2007 6:39:16 PM

*I think Clinton made real headway in reminding people that if she wins, she'll arrive as a seasoned leader with a sharp foreign policy team*

Please...she sends out Madeline as her surrogate...how well M's foreign policy go?

Seasoned is another word for same old same old...I personally would welcome a complete DC newcomer who hasn't staked out his position at the feeding trough...

New ideas...new approaches...since when has America been afraid of those?

Posted by: G Davis | Jul 28, 2007 3:36:05 AM

As an Edwards supporter, I'm in heaven.

Why? Who's talking about Edwards?

Not to snub the man, but he's desperate to be a part of this conversation. Whether you think Hillary and Barack really differ or not is beside the point.

Their "spat", as so many like to call it, is about how to govern. That's what candidates are supposed to do and I hope to see a lot more of it in the next 6 months. It's how we're supposed to choose or leaders in a democracy.

The idea that the candidates should never go head to head is a sentiment of people who don't understand the difference between debate and mudslinging.

Posted by: Jinchi | Jul 28, 2007 4:59:11 AM

Obama essentially walked into an amateur mistake of saying he'd meet with a number of national leaders without preconditions when a more judicious answer would have been about "laying groundwork"

There's the difference. I saw Senator Clinton make the "amateur mistake" of falling for a sucker bet with George Bush when she voted to give him the option of declaring war against Iraq. The judicious answer there was to give W the hammer of potential violence so that he could convince the U.N. to stop Saddam from building nukes.

The worst Barack's "rookie mistake" could do is embarass him in a photo op with the Iranian president.

A lot of us are tired of the pragmatic and judicious answers that always provide an excuse for avoiding diplomacy while leaving war on the table.

Posted by: Jinchi | Jul 28, 2007 5:13:29 AM

Ehy do so many rich liberals hate Chavez? Seriously, what powers has he actually used that make him a dictator? Dismantled a media outlet that committed treason and sedition?

Oh wait, he doesn't give rich Venezuelans everything they want. So of course he must be the antichrist. I'm not voting for any candidate that things Hugo Chavez is on the level of Fidel Castro, or Iran or China. It's just fucking ridiculous and it screams of some universal code of rich people to slander anyone who doesn't treat them like the lords and masters of the universe.

Posted by: soullite | Jul 28, 2007 7:47:18 AM

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