Did Obama’s Foreign Policy Start With a “Gaffe”?

In today’s Washington Post , Charles Krauthammer slams Barack Obama for what he calls Obama’s “gaffe”-turned-foreign-policy centerpiece. To hear Krauthammer tell it, Obama’s position that he would meet with the leaders of Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and other unfriendly governments “without preconditions” in the first year of his presidency first surfaced at the July 23 YouTube debate, in his response to a YouTube questioner. (Read the debate exchange here .) Per Krauthammer, Obama’s answer just sort of slipped out, and he ran with it: “What started as a gaffe became policy.”

Similarly, Matthew Yglesias writes about Obama’s “accidential foreign policy” in this month’s Atlantic , arguing that Obama’s camp “had never articulated such a policy before [the debate], and seemed ill-prepared to defend it on the spot.”

But was the July 23 debate really the first time Obama promised to meet with unsavory leaders? I asked Obama spokesman Ben Labolt whether he could point to earlier instances. Here are a few (emphasis mine):

  • Back in November 2006 , Obama said that “we must engage [Iraq’s] neighboring countries in finding a solution. This includes opening dialogue with both Syria and Iran, an idea supported by both James Baker and Robert Gates.” The Baker/Hamilton Report ( PDF ) recommends that a “Support Group” of nations including the United States “should actively engage Iran and Syria in its diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions .”
  • In a March 2007 speech to AIPAC, Obama advocated “tough-minded diplomacy. This includes direct engagement with Iran similar to the meetings we conducted with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War , laying out in clear terms our principles and interests.” Obama has also made the Cold War comparison in recent days.
  • In April 2007 , he said that “effective diplomacy” with “governments from Jerusalem and Amman to Damascus and Tehran” will require the ” personal commitment of the President of the United States.”

None of these statements are as strongly worded as the YouTube debate question. But they do signal a willingness engage enemies diplomatically, suggesting that Obama’s statement on July 23 was hardly a departure, let alone a “gaffe.”

In recent days, campaign representatives have “clarified” Obama’s position. “I would not say that we would meet unconditionally,” Obama supporter Tom Daschle told CNN. “… ‘Without precondition’ simply means we wouldn’t put obstacles in the way of discussing the differences between us.” Susan Rice, a foreign policy adviser to Obama, said that meeting with Iran doesn’t necessarily mean meeting with Ahmadinejad—it could mean lower-level talks.

Again, these statements offer more specifics than before, but—the debate over the meaning of “preconditions” aside—they don’t really contradict Obama’s previous statements.