As Jonathan wrote, the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with its report that the Obama administration agreed to one-on-one talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The story has been interpreted (and reinterpreted) with respect to its utility to the president before tonight’s foreign policy debate depending on the perceived nature of the leaks. So when the story first broke, it was assumed the Obama administration thought this would be politically beneficial on the eve of the debate. When the vigorous denials came—convincing enough to get the Times to change its story without alerting its readers—the public seemed to reconsider.
It is now, therefore, seen as a negative story for the administration—unhelpful, as Obama officials might say. But why? What is it about face-to-face negotiations with the Iranians that the White House might consider damaging? Certainly, as Jonathan suggested, the story has echoes of President Obama’s hot-mic moment with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which Obama promised the Russians more “flexibility” if he is reelected. Did he make such promises to the Iranians, but try harder to keep them under wraps? That is one possibility. Another is that the president may not want such a stark reminder of one of the most famous moments of the 2007 Democratic primary debates, when Obama said he would grant the enemies of America their own presidential-level summits. Obama said:
OBAMA: I would. 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.
Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they 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. We’ve been talking about Iraq — one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.
“It is a disgrace,” Obama said, that we were not having face-to-face meetings with Iran, Syria, and the rest. Of course, it was not a disgrace, and negotiations at a more appropriate level were going on long before Obama entered the scene. But it’s also a reminder of the stark difference between Obama and Mitt Romney—and not just on policy. The 2007 version of Obama was just ramping up the personality cult, the creepy and worshipful following he acquired that culminated in the ridiculous spectacle of accepting his nomination amid Greek columns while claiming that the people’s reward for nominating him would begin with him turning back the ocean tides. Last night, Dan McLaughlin tweeted:
Obama’s election represented the apex of presidential personality cults. Romney’s would be its nadir.
Obama believed he could charm the Iranian mullahs the way he charmed American editorial boards. Obama’s defenders say he’s come a long way since his election. And maybe so. But he’s struggling to come up with a reason for voters to support him a second time. He’s mostly running from his (unpopular) “accomplishments” in his first term, and hasn’t laid out much of a plan for a second besides raising taxes. The last thing the president needs is a reminder of his past naïveté in world politics coupled with any hint that he’s right back where he started: an off-putting and by now discredited belief in the power of his personality and the force of his presence.
So perhaps the White House doesn’t believe that face-to-face negotiations with Iran’s leaders is a bad idea in and of itself. But the walk-back shows that the president’s team either thinks their plan is too unpopular to go public with (if, indeed, it is their plan), or that they don’t believe the public would trust Obama to carry out those negotiations. Neither is a sign of confidence.