Is Barack Obama too naive to be president?

Military analysis.
June 4 2008 6:00 PM

Is Barack Obama Too Naive To Be President?

Not in the post-Cold War world.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand
Barack Obama

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 6:30 PM The Tragedies That Have Shaped Canada's Gun Politics
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 4:10 PM Skinny Mark Wahlberg Goes for an Oscar: The First Trailer for The Gambler
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.