It Took Six Years, but Obama Might Finally Sit Down With One of “America’s Enemies”

The World
How It Works
Sept. 20 2013 11:53 AM

It Took Six Years, but Obama Might Finally Sit Down With One of “America’s Enemies”

75607766
Charleston, UNITED STATES: New York Senator Hillary Clinton (L) listens as Illinois Senator Barack Obama (R) makes a point during the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate 23 July 2007 at the Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

In this season of off-the-cuff statements that turn out to have wide-ranging diplomatic consequences, it’s worth thinking back to the ur-substantive gaffe of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

One the defining moments of the 2008 election from an international affairs point of view came during the July 24, 2007 CNN/YouTube presidential primary debate, when an audience member asked Sen. Barack Obama, “would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” To everyone’s shock, Obama said he would, and that “that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them--which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration--is ridiculous.”

Advertisement

The response was slammed as “irresponsible and frankly naive” by Hillary Clinton campaign. Republicans were even harsher. But rather than backtrack, Obama doubled down on the idea, saying during a later one-on-one debate with Hillary Clinton that “it's important for the United States not just to talk to its friends, but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that's where diplomacy makes the biggest difference.”  My now-colleague Matthew Yglesias argued in the Atlantic in 2008 that it was this early “gaffe” that helped Obama discover his distinctive voice on foreign policy.

The thing is, it never really happened, either in Obama’s first year or any point afterward. Obama did “greet” Hugo Chavez at a summit in 2009, and received some reading material, but there was never an official meeting with the late Venezuelan leader or his successor, Nicolas Maduro. There’s been some low-level thawing of diplomatic relations with Cuba, but nothing close to a meeting between Obama and either Castro brother. Same story with both Kims. There was movement to normalize relations with Syria during the first term, but generally with then Sen. John Kerry acting as intermediary.

Of course, at the time, the question was really about Iran, and its bellicose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama has recorded yearly Nowruz messages aimed at the Iranian public, but never a sit-down with Ahmadinejad or anything close to it.

Now, it appears, with a new president in Tehran, the U.S.-Iranian presidential meeting that Obama said he was open to in 2007 might actually happen:

White House spokesman Jay Carney has deflected questions all week about whether the two leaders would meet during the U.N. gathering. On Thursday, he acknowledged a change in tone between Iran and the West since Rouhani took office and said a meeting was possible, though one was not scheduled. "It's possible, but it has always been possible," Carney said. "The extended hand has been there from the moment the president was sworn in."

The meeting in question would probably be more along the lines of the brief Chavez encounter. But with Rouhani making all the right noises in advance of the U.N. summit this week, a more formalized summit seems more plausible than it ever did in the Ahmadinejad days.

Obama’s logic in 2007, when he pointed out that “Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire… because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward,” makes as much sense today as it did at the time. Hopefully with a leader in Iran who’s more conciliatory in tone, and will perhaps turn out to be more substantively cooperative than his predecessor, the president can finally follow through on this campaign promise.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories to the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 8:13 AM Good Teaching Is Not About Playing It Safe Classroom technology can make learning more dangerous, and that’s a good thing.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 22 2014 7:30 AM An Illusion That Makes Me Happy and Sad
  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.