Obama on Iran: "Evolving" or Not?

A campaign blog.
June 4 2008 3:42 PM

Obama on Iran: "Evolving" or Not?

After Obama’s speech at AIPAC this morning, ABC News noted what appeared to be new language on the subject of meetings with Iran:

"But as President of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principleddiplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of mychoosing – if, and only if – it canadvance the interests of the United States ." [E.A.]
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ABC describes Obama’s position as "evolving" ever since his originalstatement in the YouTube debate that he’d be willing to meet with the leadersof Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela "without preconditions. "Butnow," ABC writes, "Obama has put a major condition on his willingness to meetwith Iran: he will meet onlyif such a meeting advances the interests of the U.S."

Isn’t this sort of circular? Would a U.S. president ever meet with another leader ifhe didn’t think it advances the interest of the United States? You could argue he’swrong, but it’s not like Obama has any other reason to sit down with Ahmadinejad.

This is all part of a larger debate about whether or notObama is walking back his original stance. ABC has argued that Obama’s stancehas grown "nuanced" and pointed to surrogates parsing words like"preconditions" ("I would not say that we would meet unconditionally,"said Tom Daschle) and "leader" (not necessarily Ahmadinejad, said adviser SusanRice).

But the Obama campaign insists that his stance has been consistent all along. According to them, it turns onone word: "willing." The campaign points out that the YouTube questioner asked Obamawhether or not he would be "willing" to meet with those leaders—a distinctionfrom saying he would meet with them. Hesaid, "I would." Of course, that could mean either "I would meet with them" or"I would be willing to meet with them." The Obama camp says it’s the latter. Backin November, the senator told Tim Russert, "I did not say that I would be meeting with all of them. I saidI'd be willing to."

This is pretty high-level (or maybe it’s low-level) parsing.But picking apart words seems to be the main method of campaign warfare rightnow. See the McCain camp bickeringover tenses when it comes to "pre-surge levels," or Obama stressing thedifference between "preconditions" and "preparation." But when nitpicking isthe norm, the campaigns are forced to nitpick back. Who knew the job of communicationsdirector also included etymologist, lexicographer, and semanticist?

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.