The question of the moment: Is Barack Obama too naive to be commander in chief?
Now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic candidate, this is the line of attack that John McCain is aggressively pushing. In part, this is because he doesn't have much else to run on. In part, it's because there's video footage, from the Democratic primary contests, of Hillary Clinton making the same accusation.
So is there something to the charge?
The notion stems from the Democrats' CNN-YouTube Debate of July 23, 2007, when a viewer named Steve asked the candidates whether—in the spirit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's bold trip to Jerusalem—they would be willing to talk with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea "without preconditions" during their first year in office.
To the surprise of many, Obama answered, "I would." Clinton countered that she would not make such a "promise" (though Obama didn't either—the question was whether he would be "willing"). After the debate, she went further and called Obama's response "irresponsible and, frankly, naive." A presidential visit is special; it shouldn't be undertaken unless the outcome is all but known in advance.
Even some of Obama's own staff asked him after the debate whether he wanted to retract the remark. No, he told them, he meant what he said. He clarified later that there would have to be an agenda—he wasn't keen on talking for the sake of talking—but "preconditions," which means a great deal more, shouldn't be required.
On Tuesday, hours before Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, McCain, signaling the start of the general election, told a crowd in New Orleans, "Americans ought to be concerned about the judgment of a presidential candidate who says he's ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang."
And so it's worth taking a look at what Obama actually said during that July 23 debate. Here is his full reply:
I would [be willing to meet with those leaders], and the reason is this: The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration—is ridiculous. … [Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy talked with Soviet leaders because] they understood that we may not trust them, and they may pose an extraordinary threat to us, but we have the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
Obama added, referring to the countries that the questioner listed, "It is a disgrace that we have not spoken with them." For instance, he said, we need to talk with Iran and Syria, if only about Iraq, "because if Iraq collapses, they're going to have responsibilities."
I would submit there is nothing wrong with any of this. Obama might have done well to focus more intently, at the time, on the phrase "without preconditions"—to parse its meaning and to distinguish the lack of preconditions from the lack of preparations—but, taken in full, and in the context of the question, his reply was the acme of common sense.