Sen. Hillary Clinton is seeking to prey on the potentially weak self-esteem of Democratic primary voters, by picking a gratuitous fight with Sen. Barack Obama.
During this week's debate, Obama said he would be "willing" to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba in his first year as president, saying , "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous."
Clinton chastised him at the debate, saying "you [don't] promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. ... I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters."
In fact, Obama did not "promise" a meeting, the question was whether he'd be "willing." Nothing in his answer indicated he wouldn't take the obvious first step of lower-level meetings. (And saying "I" in this context does not necessarily mean himself personally, anyway.)
Yesterday, Clinton went a step farther, calling Obama's remarks "irresponsible and frankly naive."
This may well be smart short-term politics for Clinton.
By talking down to Obama while echoing conservative frames about negotiation, skittish primary voters may feel more comfortable that she can handle the eventual GOP nominee in the general election.
(In much the same way primary voters thought John Kerry was more electable because he was a veteran.)
But it's awful long-term politics for us and anyone '08 hopeful actually interested in fundamentally changing our foreign policy.
The neocon foreign policy debacle is a major opportunity to debunk conservative premises and reframe our foreign policy discourse, so we stop equating talking with weakness and saber-rattling with strength.
That is exactly what Obama was trying to do in his answer. And Clinton deliberately stepped on it.
Good for her perhaps, but bad for building a case for a new foreign policy.
An important side note: a way to enhance Obama's answer to that question is offered in the foreign policy chapter of my own "Wait! Don't Move To Canada!".
When America deals with another country, instead of only talking to the people in power or to a single opposition party, we should deal with groups representing all people's and parties representing all ideologies in that country. That way it will be evident that America is not trying to dictate who is in power in other countries for its own ends, but that we are willing to work with whomever sovereign peoples choose to represent them, now or in the future.
So, don't hesitate to open to the door to meeting with the leaders of Iran, Syria, etc., but at the same time, pledge to meet with opposition leaders as well.
This should be part of a larger effort to reframe foreign policy discussion and positively define the principles and objectives of a liberal foreign policy vision -- namely, promoting credible democracy and eradicating poverty to defeat the terrorist threat.
If it's clear to the public where we want to take the country and the world, and we have a game plan how to achieve it, we can fundamentally reframe the debate.
Obama took a step towards doing that. Clinton took that step back. All of the candidates need to go farther.