Classic "Conditioning"

In Iowa this morning, Sen. Obama admonished the Beltway press corps for using horse race criteria to judge his debate with Sen. Hillary Clinton instead of focusing on the differences between the two of them.

Fair enough.

Obama would meet with the Evil Five "without preconditions" but under "certain conditions." By plain reading, his position contradicts itself. Based on how Obama has subsequently explained his answer, it seems that he meants to say that he would not require the other countries to agree to diplomatic preconditions but that he would not simply meet Hugo Chavez as the Venezuelan Camp David unless he were reasonably certain that Chavez didn't intend to spit in his face. The United States may or may not come to the table with demands.

Clinton would initiative diplomatic overtures immediately but would be skeptical if, say, Holocaust-denying president of Iran decided to invite her to Tehran or to, say, speak at a conference on Zionism. The U.S. has moral leverage in this situation and Clinton would not easily abdicate it.

Both Clinton and Obama say they would be "tough" with these leaders and relentlessly press the United States's interests. Both have said, repeatedly, that they would practice diplomacy to Bush-Cheney cowboy approach.

Charitably, these positions are different by about four cents on the dollar.

Obama goes further. He may even stipulate that Clinton says the right things, but he is making a broader argument: Obama represents a break with the old order and Hillary exemplifies it. Clinton has baggage, history, and promotes a Washington-centric, consensus national security liberalism. Obama would engage these leaders from a different vantage point. And Clinton might agree about that last point: it's not that the issue is whether the Bush-Cheney diplomatic track is reversed, but how.

Calling Clinton "Bush-Cheney lite" is a political charge though, so we go back to politics.

If we string back to the matrix of policy positions, Obama is either trying to manufacture differences where aren't any, or he is suggesting that Clinton is too much of an establishment, dynastic figure to break away from the Bush-Cheney approach which somehow, in Obama's mind, represents a continuation, rather than a break with, the establishment thinking on foreign policy.

In other words, Obama wants to focus on how Clinton originally positioned herself (rather than what she meant) because Obama clearly believes he and Clinton approach foreign policy from a fundamentally different place even if, in this particular situation, they agree on the remedy. The onus on Obama is to show, clearly, how both his approach and his operationalization would be different.