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10:48 am CST - October 06, 2008

Posted under The Scoop

When It Comes to Iran, Democrats Are More Talk, Less Filling

By Jeff Stein, CQ Staff
Published: 10-06-08

The more the Democratic candidates talk about foreign policy, the less clear they are.

It’s one thing for the Democratic and Republican standard bearers to disagree about “direct talks” with Iran or North Korea.

It’s another thing entirely for Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. , who favor “direct talks” with both, to fail so badly at making themselves clear that the McCain-Palin ticket can accuse them of “appeasement” and pretty much get away with it.

We’re only talking about the fate of the world here.

Oh sure, when you ask for explanations, the Obama-Biden staffs can dig up a sentence or phrase from a TV interview or somewhere showing that, for a fleeting moment anyway, their candidates seem clear about what they really mean by “direct talks.”

But when it counts the most, when 70 million Americans — not to mention the prime ministers of allied and adversarial governments — are watching closely, the candidates can’t seem to say that they’re not talking about calling up Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the election and saying, “Meet me at Starbucks.”

But it sounds that way, doesn’t it?

“Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition,” Obama was asked at the first debate, “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 would,” Obama said. “And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous..”

Now that sounds like a Starbucks date to me.

Ever since, McCain, who knows better, and Palin, who probably doesn’t, have been flogging Obama and Biden with that like they were convicts in a stone quarry.

“Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, the Castro brothers, others who are dangerous dictators,” Palin jabbed Biden Thursday night, “are ones that Barack Obama has said he would be willing to meet with without preconditions being met first.”

So what did Biden say in response?

 “Can I clarify this? This is simply not true about Barack Obama . He did not say sit down with Ahmadinejad.”

Of course he did, plenty of times. And it’s right on their own campaign’s Web site: “Obama supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions.”

Sure, you can scroll down the page, and find, tucked in the middle of another paragraph, “They will do the careful preparation necessary . . .”

But you get my point.

God bless the campaign aides. Obama’s, at my request, worked hard to clarify that their candidates do not mean “no conditions.”

For example, one sent me a quote from an Obama appearance on CNN in May: “I would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders if we had done sufficient preparations for that meeting.”
And there was this, from a June speech by Obama:

“There will be careful preparation. We will open up lines of communication, build an agenda, coordinate closely with our allies, and evaluate the potential for progress.”

And in another paragraph: “Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking.”

But then Obama muddies the water again. He continues:

“But as President of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing — if, and only if — it can advance the interests of the United States.”

Again: “I would be willing to lead . . . diplomacy . . . with the appropriate Iranian leader . . .”

To confuse the matter even further, Palin maintains that Henry Kissinger, he of the back door negotiations with China and North Vietnam, is opposed to direct talks with adversaries.

Either Palin didn’t understand a word Kissinger said, or she deliberately misconstrued the remarks of a man who turned “direct talks” into an art form.

My bet is it’s the former.

Whatever, she’s suddenly morphed into the Manny Ramirez of the campaign season, knocking Biden and Obama out of the park with her mocking, rhetorical swings.

Is she good enough to bring the McCain team a championship?

I don’t think so. But in a short series like this one, the Democrats’ pitching has got to get better.

Jeff Stein can be reached at

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