Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald interviewed Barack Obama a day before the CNN-YouTube debate where Obama took some heat for his answer to a question as to whether or not he would meet with Hugo Chavez (among other world leaders who are hostile to the United States). In this interview, Oppenheimer asked Obama the same basic question that he answered during the CNN/YouTube debates. His answer then offers some clarification of Obama's position.
I was not terribly surprised when Sen. Barack Obama said in the Democratic presidential debate Monday that he would sit down with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez if elected president. He had told me so a day earlier -- and much more -- although with a very important caveat.Personally, I think Obama's position is the correct one; and he shouldn't shy away from it. He should embrace it, clarify it, and run with it.
In a wide-ranging interview on foreign affairs, and Latin America in particular, the Democratic presidential hopeful criticized President Bush's foreign policy as excessively "based on the dislike of Hugo Chávez." And he told me that he would not only sit down with the Venezuelan president "under certain conditions" but would travel to leftist-ruled Bolivia -- Venezuela's closest ally in South America -- at the start of his presidency.
"We've seen our influence diminished in the world," Obama said in the Sunday interview. "We've seen an inability to recognize constructive opportunities with countries that may be leaning left, but that are trying to do the right thing by their people. That is a fundamental difference that I think will be reflected in an Obama presidency."
What would he do? I asked.
"The starting point is to rebuild the alliances that have been frayed in the past several years, to travel early to key countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, but also Bolivia -- countries where the assumption is that we don't have common interests. I think that we do."
A day later, at the CNN-YouTube Democratic Debate, Obama raised eyebrows nationwide when he responded affirmatively to a question on whether he would be willing to meet -- without preconditions -- in the first year of his presidency with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
Asked the same question at the debate, Sen. Hillary Clinton seized the moment to portray Obama as a rookie on foreign affairs, saying that she would not hold such meetings right away because "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes."
In our interview, the senator from Illinois had been a bit more cautious. When I asked him whether he would meet with Chávez, he had said, "Under certain conditions, I always believe in talking. Sometimes it's more important to talk to your enemies than to your friends."