Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said today that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, made comments that were "irresponsible and frankly naive" when he said in Monday night's debate that he would meet with leaders of rogue nations during his first year in office.
Clinton's response, made in an interview with an Iowa newspaper, marks the sharpest exchange to date between the top two Democratic candidates for president — and the first time Clinton has explicitly attacked another Democratic candidate.
It represents an elevation in a simmering dispute between the two camps, and a continuation of a specific argument at Monday's debate.
The question that sparked the controversy at Monday's debate seemed simple enough: Would the candidates for president be willing to meet, within their first year in office, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?
Obama said yes, while Clinton said no, arguing that the president should only meet with world leaders who are hostile to the United States after lower-level diplomatic contacts are conducted. In an interview today with the Quad City Times, Clinton more directly criticized Obama's answer.
"I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive," Clinton said, according to a story posted on the newspaper's Web site.
Striking back, Obama called the newspaper Tuesday, saying what was "irresponsible and naive" was voting to authorize the Iraq war.
"What she's somehow maintaining is my statement could be construed as not having asked what the meeting was about. I didn't say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon," he said, calling this a "fabricated controversy."
After the CNN/YouTube debate, both the Clinton and Obama camps pointed to the question about meeting with foreign leaders as key moments in defining the differences between the candidates.
Obama got the question first. As a candidate who has blasted the Bush administration for running a foreign policy that ignores diplomacy, Obama saw it as a no-brainer when asked whether he would meet with the leaders of nations that have been hostile to U.S. interests.
"I would," he said. "And the reason is this, 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."
To the Obama camp, his response emphasized a cornerstone of his campaign: change. After two terms of a failed foreign policy under President Bush, his campaign argues, Obama is laying out a vastly different vision that would include outreach even to the nation's enemies, just as American presidents kept open contacts with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.
"Obama's tough but smart approach to America's diplomacy is exactly the kind of change and new thinking that excites voters about an Obama presidency," the campaign said in a memo distributed to reporters today.
But when the same question was posed to Clinton, she was just as eager to respond — though in a much different way.
"I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year," she said. "I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort, because I think it is not that you 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," she said, in a veiled jab at Obama. "I don't want to make a situation even worse."
To the Clinton campaign, the exchange highlighted Clinton's vast experience and foreign-policy know-how — and Obama's naivete. Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under Clinton's husband, called Clinton's answer "perfect" — and strongly implied that Obama was wrong to not recognize the importance of the "diplomatic spade work" that is best performed by lower-level personnel, not the president.
"Having been involved in this myself, I think she showed a very sophisticated and nuanced view of what really happened, and for me, it shows the kind of experience she has," Albright said in a conference call with reporters arranged by the Clinton campaign today.
Though Obama's answer was unequivocal, Obama aides said after the debate that he never meant to suggest that he would definitely personally meet with dictators such as Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro without first initiating in lower-level diplomacy. And they accused Clinton of contradicting herself on the subject by circulating a Clinton quote from April.
"I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people," Clinton said.
But Clinton aides said she had never ruled out meeting with foreign leaders who are hostile to the United States. The key distinction is that she would first want assurances that such a meeting would be likely productive, they explained.
"You can't just kind of show up and have an event," Albright said.
This is not the first time that a debate question has provoked an interesting series of exchanges involving Clinton and Obama. At the first Democratic debate, in April, the candidates were asked how they'd respond to a terrorist attack.
Obama's initial response focused on emergency management. But after Clinton said that "a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate," Obama added to his answer: "We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down."