On Iran, Parsing Obama, Without Preconditions Or Preconceptions

By Marc Ambinder

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?)

SQUARE ONE

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.

WHAT DOES "LEADER" MEAN?

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:

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"When we talk about precondition, we say, everything needs to be on the table. I would not say that we would meet unconditionally; of course there are conditions that we would...are involved in preparation, in getting ready for the diplomacy."

Between the two end points, there's been an evolution.

In April, Obama: "So as a matter of principle, I will talk to any head of state after sufficient preparation in order to lay out what our interests are and to listen to them, but not to concede on the issues that are in our long term national security interest. So for example, meeting with Iran, if I were sitting at the table, I will be very specific."

Who injected the word preparation? A political adviser? What does that mean? Diplomacy under the level of principles? Obama's getting a briefing book and memorizing its contents?

Working backwards, here's Obama, speaking to Haaretz in October of 2007:


"I don't think it would be appropriate for us to engage in full-scale diplomatic discussions without some progress or some indication of good faith on the part of the Iranians,' the senator said. 'I do think the U.S. needs to send a signal to Iran that if they change their behavior that they have avenues available to them for improved international relations."



The day before, speaking about Hugo Chavez to Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald:

'Under certain conditions, I always believe in talking. Sometimes it's more important to talk to your enemies than to your friends



My best semi-educated guess is that (a) Obama originally spoke in shorthand and that (b) he has clarified, in his own mind, his position; (c) that he wants Democrats to hear "without preconditions" and independents to hear "with preparation" (which is a euphemism for extensive pre-presidential contact diplomacy.") and (d) that his advisers still aren't reading from the same page of talking points. Also: Obama wants to draw a much brighter line between his approach to Iran and North Korea's and the Bush administration's approach to those countries.... A political trap awaits Obama in this sense: how to best distinguish your diplomatic approach from President Bush's.... that requires a very very wide gap between the two approaches ... and how to reassure Americans that Obama does not believe in the messianic power of his own rhetoric and would not be willing to let Iran run roughshod over the United States? That requires a slightly narrower gap. After all, there _are_ low level and mid-level (and even senior level) contacts between Iran and the United States right now; the Bush Administration is negotiating with North Korea....

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