The Politics of Diplomacy: Reflections on the Obama-Clinton Skirmish


I’m just getting my feet back on the ground after a long weekend in Maine. When I left DC, we were just starting to feel the shockwaves of the Democratic debate. Five days later, it feels like they’ve only gotten stronger. The Obama and Clinton PR machines are still trying to get a boost (or contain the damage) from last week’s 90-second argument over diplomacy with rival countries.
I did some reflecting on what all this means when I was in Acadia National Park, one of the country’s most beautiful places (I thought about posting a picture of Clinton or Obama, but this shot of Acadia’s Otter Point is a much more refreshing sight in the midst of the long campaign season).
I was in a bit of a news vacuum and didn’t get to read what others were saying. So it was a nice surprise when, upon my return, much of my views were already reflected here on this blog. Steve makes two important points: first, that Clinton must not leave the impression that she won’t deal with “bad guys”; and second, that what Clinton actually said leaves a lot of room for high-level engagement with hostile countries. Sameer rightly points out that Obama never “promised” to meet with anyone, as some of his rivals have suggested.
This furor started a week ago, so part of me is tempted to let Steve’s and Sameer’s insightful comments to speak for themselves and move on. Weighing in now only contributes to the outrageous media maelstrom that currently surrounds electoral politics.
But this is one of those rare moments in which the ongoing media storm actually serves the country well. If it gets big enough, both candidates will have to make moves. For both candidates, the right moves politically are the right moves policy-wise, too.
Clinton probably got the better of the CNN debate exchange, appearing both prudent and cautious. However, her subsequent attacks on Obama have left the impression that she’s cool on diplomacy. There’s a way she can bolster her reputation as the seasoned, experienced candidate and still emphasize her commitment to diplomacy: she can outline (perhaps in an op-ed) her strategy for the U.S. to proactively start talks with some or all of the governments of Syria, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea.
Primary voters don’t need Clinton to promise that she’ll meet every Head of State personally. They need to be reassured that a Clinton administration will come to the table instead of holding out and setting preconditions for negotiations.
For his part, Obama hasn’t yet decided how ambitious his agenda is. One moment he’s invoking the spirit of Ronald Reagan, suggesting that negotiating with adversaries has always been commonsense; the next moment, his campaign is about “turning a page.”
The Reagan/Kennedy invocations work for Obama to set the frame and he should keep using them. But let’s be honest: no presidential candidate has ever campaigned on a platform of direct, high-level talks with hostile nations.
Obama’s campaign seems to be hard-wired to avoid risk and to project moderation, but the candidate needs to resist that push and instead embrace the boldness of his idea. An “Axis of Frank Dialogue” tour would signify far more than even “turning a page.” It would mean writing a new chapter in the most progressive, revolutionary way.
What matters most to me in this skirmish is that both candidates are prepared to go to the negotiating table at some level without arrogantly suggesting that others need to ante up first, as the current administration does.
Both candidates have an opportunity to make that point in ways that reinforce their respective identities. Whether it’s Clinton’s experienced leadership or Obama’s future-oriented optimism is of secondary importance to me for the time being. What matters is that we start talking.
— Scott Paul


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