June 4, 2008 — -- Don't call Barack Obama an appeaser.
In his speech Wednesday before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama sounded a bit like the more hawkish officials in the Bush administration.
He said the military option is "on the table" for dealing with Iran's nuclear program, and in stark contrast to earlier statements, he said he would meet with Iranian leaders "if and only if it can advance the interest of the United States."
Obama's tone was strikingly different from it has been in the past.
During a debate last summer, he said he would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders and other American adversaries "without preconditions" during the first year of his presidency. Today, he made it clear that we should not expect a President Obama to be sitting down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad any time soon:
"[A]s president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing if and only if it can advance the interest of the United States. That is my position. I want to be absolutely clear."
Obama campaign officials insist the presumptive Democratic nominee has not changed his position.
"It's not a precondition to say he'll only do it to advance our interests," said Obama foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough.
McDonough said Obama has never promised to meet with Iran's leaders. He's simply said that he is willing to meet with Iran's leaders. "And the key word there is willing. The idea that some have suggested is that he has promised a meeting. That is not the case and never was the case. He argued then as he argued today that he is willing to meet as it advances our interests."
But take another look at what Obama said during last July's Democratic debate sponsored by CNN and Youtube. The question is clear, and so is his response:
QUESTION: "Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?"
OBAMA: "I would. And the reason is this: The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous. Ronald Reagan constantly spoke to the Soviet Union at a time when he called them an evil empire. He understood that we may not trust them, and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward. And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them."
Obama's position on talking to Iran has been evolving for some time.
Since the CNN/Youtube debate, he has been saying that he would only meet with Iranian leaders after "preparation" by lower-level officials.
Most recently, talking to reporters in South Dakota last month, he explained, "The preparation would involve starting with low-level, lower-level diplomatic contacts, having our diplomatic corps work with their Iranian counterparts, an agenda. But what I have said is that at some point, I would be willing to meet."
Now with his speech before AIPAC he said he will meet with Iranian leaders "if and only if it can advance the interest of the United States."
This isn't all that different from the Bush administration's position.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also offered to meet with Iranian leaders if Iran agrees to suspend its uranium enrichment program. It's a more specific precondition than Obama's, but it is an offer to hold negotiations.
"We would be willing to meet with them but not while they continue to inch toward nuclear weapons under the cover of talks," Rice said Tuesday. "The real question isn't why won't the Bush administration talk to Iran. The real question is why won't Iran talk to us."
There is, of course, one important difference.
Obama is willing to start low-level talks on Iran's nuclear program right away, something the Bush administration has refused to do.
Obama said he would engage in such diplomacy "with no illusions about the Iranian regime."
"I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," he said, repeating himself for emphasis, "everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear, everything."
Echoing the Bush administration, Obama added: "I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel. Do not be confused."