On Iran, Parsing Obama, Without Preconditions Or Preconceptions

About meeting with rogue leaders, what did Sen. Barack Obama really say, and what did he really mean?

Blargh, says the Obama campaign. All this word parsing is besides the point, is indicative of "gotcha politics" and the politics of distraction. Everyone knows that Obama meant.

Here's the campaign's official language:

"Barack Obama has always said that he is willing to meet with appropriate Iranian leaders at the appropriate time after due preparation and advance work by US diplomats. That's what he said last summer, and that's what he's said throughout the campaign. Preparation is not a precondition it is absolutely necessary to the success of any diplomatic effort. You need to build an agenda and open lines of communication, just as we would do with any country, But Barack Obama believes we must be willing to lead, just like Kennedy did, and just like Reagan did. And that's what he will do as president."

What we're trying to figure out is, what would it take for Obama to meet with the leaders of Iran? An invitation from Ahmadinejad or Ali Khamenei? Previous diplomacy? Concessions? An OK from the head of the PPD that it's safe to travel?

It's clear now that Obama would not, pledge, within the first year of his administration, meet directly with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without "preconditions" and without equivocation. It IS clear that Obama would meet with Ahmadinejad (or Ali Khamenei) without forcing Ahmadinejad (or Ali Khamenei) to provably suspend uranium enrichment. It's also clear that Obama would be more willing to meet with these leaders than McCain.

Obama's campaign now uses the word "with preparation" as shorthand to refer to diplomatic advance work; other advisers use the word "unconditional" as a straw man to suggest that critics are accusing Obama of wanting to meet "unconditionally" with these leaders -- of course their would be "conditions" -- there just wouldn't be "pre-conditions." (Would there be .... post-conditions?)


In July of 2007, Barack Obama was asked by a video questioner: "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?....."

"I would," he answered.

Now -- in Obama's answer, he broadens the predicate, saying at one point that "we need to talk to Iran and Syria," which is not the same thing, necessarily, as talking to Ali Khamenei or to Ahmadinejad or to Assad, but contextually, given the question was about "leaders" and given that the questioner mentioned the phrase "without preconditions," it certainly sounds as if Obama was promising to meet, within the first year of his administration, without preconditions, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, etc.

Moments after the debate ended, David Axelrod told reporters that Obama did not necessarily mean what he appeared to say:

"What he meant was, as a government, he’d be willing and eager to initiate those kinds of talks, just as during the Cold War there were low-level discussions and mid-level discussions between us and the Soviet Union and so on. So he was not promising summits with all of those leaders."

Axelrod accused Hillary Clinton, who had questioned Obama's approach, of making a distinction without a difference.


Sometimes, it means the head of state or government. Sometimes, it means lower-level officials.

Susan Rice, an Obama adviser, parsed this very distinction, in her response to a question from Wolf Blitzer yesterday:


"“Well, first of all, he said he'd meet with the appropriate Iranian leaders. He hasn't named who that leader will be. It may, in fact be that by the middle of next of year, Ahmadinejad is long gone."

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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