Even though most Americans don’t know anything about the Obama-Clinton spat, it has become a notable dispute between the rivals.  When I heard the answers from the two candidates, I thought Obama’s response was a bit odd.  I knew what he meant, and I could even see how he could argue for meeting with, say, Assad or whichever Iranian President is elected in 2009 during his term in office, but why pledge to meet with Kim Jong Il within the first year?  Chavez and Castro (either one) are fairly irrelevant, and meeting with them would mean nothing if it did not represent some shift in relations.  There are degrees of “roguishness” among the rogue states, and it is rather ludicrous to lump together the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Latin America together with important regional players in the Near East and the crackpot in Pyongyang.  Why not throw in Mugabe for a nice even half-dozen? 

In fairness to Obama, this was the question’s flaw, but the stupidity of the question might have been turned back on the person asking it in a smart and interesting way to show that he, Obama, knew that some of these regimes were worse and more obstinate than others.  Some might merit the direct attention of the President in certain circumstances, while others could be safely ignored or kept at arm’s length while lower-level contacts might pave the way for later meetings between higher-ups.  The approach that would ultimately be favoured by both Foggy Bottom and the public would involve incrementally developing contacts with these regimes that could lead, over the course of a year or two, to proper meetings between the Secretary of State and his opposite number, which might then lead to more contacts or not. 

Leaping to the conclusion of this process, where the President meets with the leader on the other side, would not only probably be jarring and horrifying to the diplomatic corps at the State Department, but would ensure that very little would come from the meeting.  If Obama appreciated the difference between meetings that represent the fulfillment of a long diplomatic process and meetings to show that he, Obama, is not some stand-offish yahoo like Bush (he’s lived in other countries, after all), he would have handled the question much differently.  To do that, he would have had to have understood something very basic but very important about diplomacy, but he did not, does not, understand.    

As a symbol of his departure from the methods of Bush, Obama’s answer made some sense, but like everything else he says on foreign policy (from his “I majored in international relations and lived in Indonesia, so I am more qualified than anybody” line to his recent article in Foreign Affairs) it comes off sounding fairly dopey, poorly conceived and clueless.  Some credit this to his inexperience in a major campaign with real opposition, while others (including myself) recognise that Obama sounds clueless on foreign policy because he is basically clueless.  His correct position on Iraq has been allowed to mask his otherwise misguided foreign policy vision, and his prescience on the disaster that the war could become has been mistaken for some overriding understanding of foreign policy.  Yet he has not demonstrated any such understanding since he took the position on the war that was, as it happens, also extremely popular in his district and his state. 

New Presidents choose the first foreign trips in their first year with what I assume is tremendous care, since they appreciate that these trips will possess a symbolism beyond what even they might wish to convey.  (Speaking of propaganda, presidential visits to another country are put to use in propaganda, er, public relations here at home.)  It mattered (more than some may have realised at the time) that Mr. Bush chose Mexico as his first foreign destination–it represented Mr. Bush’s immigration mania, his ignorance about foreign policy and the world beyond North America, and included a pointed slight to far more reliable allies when he declared that we had a “special relationship” with Mexico.  Later that year, he went to Europe, after which time there was not a great deal of time left to go jetting off to any other locations if he wanted to attempt to do anything else domestically.  Likewise, the leaders new Presidents invite to Washington or to their various retreats are also representative of the administration’s priorities and the President’s judgement (Mr. Bush’s soul-seeing moment with Putin was telling and a sign of his non-intellectual, instinctive style of policymaking).  Even meetings at relatively neutral venues, such as summits, stamp an administration in certain ways. 

Whichever method Obama might use to have these meetings, he would have to be very careful that he scripted it in such a way so as not to slight actual allied and large non-aligned countries. 

“Sorry, Chancellor Merkel, the President can’t see you for very long, because he’s got to have a sit-down with Chavez before the summit ends.”  The silliness of the entire scenario is part of the problem I have with the obsession with what are mostly powerless tinpot dictatorships that our foreign policy establishment, political class and media cultivate.  The President shouldn’t have to meet with most of these leaders at any time, much less during his first year in office, because they are mostly second or third-rate powers, if not outright economic and political basketcases.  Would the President go racing to meet with the leadership in Estonia and Thailand in his first year?  It is unlikely.  Why, then, pledge to be in a hurry to meet the rulers of states that are actually much weaker and poorer?  What we are arguing over here ought to be what the policy of the government towards the regimes would be.  In all of the sound and fury following the debate the other day, I have no sense that Obama and Clinton have any interest in fundamentally changing our policy towards Iran or North Korea.  As near as I can tell, except for Iraq, Obama would like to retain most of the overall policy goals of the current administration, but would like to go about pursuing them in a different way.  That makes his answer the other day far less important as a signal that he is going to change anything substantive.  What he wants to do is project a different image.  As with everything else in his campaign, Obama is proposing superficial, rhetorical and stylistic changes.    

It is therefore remarkable that public opinion tends to side a bit more with Obama’s position of meeting with “rogue nations” (42% support, 34% are against, 24% are not sure).  Remarkably, according to Rasmussen’s breakdown of the results, even 30% of conservatives and 31% of Republicans endorse presidential meetings with “rogue nations.”  Obama may be a foreign policy dunce, but he has actually picked a position that seems to be a political winner.