There was a point during last night’s debate when Senators Obama and McCain got into an argument over whether Henry Kissinger, who hasn’t been Secretary of State since 1977, supports their respective positions on negotiations with Iran:
OBAMA: Senator McCain mentioned Henry Kissinger, who’s one of his advisers, who, along with five recent secretaries of state, just said that we should meet with Iran — guess what — without precondition. This is one of your own advisers.
Now, understand what this means “without preconditions.” It doesn’t mean that you invite them over for tea one day. What it means is that we don’t do what we’ve been doing, which is to say, “Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won’t have direct contacts with you.” There’s a difference between preconditions and preparation. Of course we’ve got to do preparations, starting with low-level diplomatic talks, and it may not work, because Iran is a rogue regime.
MCCAIN: Look, Dr. Kissinger did not say that he would approve of face-to- face meetings between the president of the United States and the president — and Ahmadinejad. He did not say that.
OBAMA: Of course not.
MCCAIN: He said that there could be secretary-level and lower level meetings. I’ve always encouraged them. The Iranians have met with Ambassador Crocker in Baghdad.
What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a “stinking corpse,” and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments. This is dangerous. It isn’t just naive; it’s dangerous. And so we just have a fundamental difference of opinion.
OBAMA: Look, I mean, Senator McCain keeps on using this example that suddenly the president would just meet with somebody without doing any preparation, without having low-level talks. Nobody’s been talking about that, and Senator McCain knows it. This is a mischaracterization of my position. When we talk about preconditions — and Henry Kissinger did say we should have contacts without preconditions — the idea is that we do not expect to solve every problem before we initiate talks.
MCCAIN: So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, “We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” and we say, “No, you’re not”? Oh, please.
OBAMA: No, let me tell…
MCCAIN: By the way, my friend, Dr. Kissinger, who’s been my friend for 35 years, would be interested to hear this conversation and Senator Obama’s depiction of his — of his positions on the issue. I’ve known him for 35 years.
The McCain followed up the debate by releasing this statement from Kissinger himself:
Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next President of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the Presidential level. My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain. We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that any negotiations with Iran must be geared to reality.
As I noted when Sarah Palin brought this issue up with Katie Couric, though, Kissinger has joined other Secretaries of State in calling for direct negotiations with Iran without preconditions.
Consider this from March of this year:
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said the U.S. should negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear program and other bilateral issues.
“One should be prepared to negotiate, and I think we should be prepared to negotiate about Iran,” Kissinger, who brokered the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur war and peace talks with the North Vietnamese, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. Asked whether he meant the U.S. should hold direct talks, Kissinger, 84, responded: “Yes, I think we should.”
And he said much the same thing only a week ago:
I am in favor of negotiating with Iran. And one utility of negotiation is to put before Iran our vision of a Middle East, of a stable Middle East, and our notion on nuclear proliferation at a high enough level so that they have to study it. And, therefore, I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level so that we — we know we’re dealing with authentic…
I always believed that the best way to begin a negotiation is to tell the other side exactly what you have in mind and what you are — what the outcome is that you’re trying to achieve so that they have something that they can react to.
Now, the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Japan and Germany, have all said nuclear weapons in Iran are unacceptable. They’ve never explained what they mean by this. So if we go into a negotiation, we ought to have a clear understanding of what is it we’re trying to prevent. What is it going to do if we can’t achieve what we’re talking about?
But I do not believe that we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations. We ought, however, to be very clear about the content of negotiations and work it out with other countries and with our own government.
Here’s the video of that particular exchange:
So Kissinger favors talking to Iran, without precondition, at the Secretary of State/Foreign Minister level. This is as position that McCain himself has agreed with. So, what’s the argument about ?
James Joyner explains:
What’s happened here is simple: Obama gave an off-the-cuff answer to a hypothetical question at a debate months ago. Rather than admitting that it was less than nuanced and that he’s clarified his position since then, he’s pretending that his initial description of his position — presidential level talks “without preconditions” — accurately reflects his current, more nuanced position.
In actuality, McCain and Obama have the exact same position on the issue and both agree with Kissinger. Yet they either don’t fully understand that fact or they’re pretending that minor differences in emphasis represent cosmic differences in worldviews.
My guess is that it’s the later, especially on the part of McCain and his surrogates.
The suggestion, as false as it may be, that Obama would meet with Ahmenijad himself without preconditions (what Obama calls “preparations”) is an easy sound bite for McCain and surrogates like Sean Hannity to repeat endlessly and it’s easier to explain than the more nuanced idea that, yes, a John McCain would talk with the Iranians just as much as an Obama Administration would. That, after all, is what diplomacy is all about.
Obama bears some of the blame here as well. It would be simple, it seems, for him to simply say that his earlier response during the debate with Hillary Clinton was not precise enough and that of course he recognizes that much work would have to be done before the President of the United States and the President of Iran could actually meet face to face.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or won’t happen.
Kennedy met with Kruschev. Nixon met with Mao. Reagan met with Gorbachev (and would have met with Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko if Russian leaders in the early 1980s hadn’t developed the inconvenient habit of dying every 18 months). Heck, we’ve sent Secretaries of State to North Korea and have diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese regime. And before all that happened there were lower-level meetings going on for years between the United States and regimes that posed a far greater threat to our security, and their own citizens, than a mad-man like Ahmenijad does today.
And that’s the part of this that McCain can’t explain — if it’s okay to talk to the Soviets, the Red Chinese, the North Koreans, the Vietnamese, and even the Cubans, then what’s so bad about diplomatic contact with Iran ?
Diplomacy is a good thing, as Winston Churchill himself recognized.
Senator McCain and his surrogates would do well to take Sir Winston’s wisdom to heart.