Debate Fact Checking: Kissinger
Readers can easily peruse Memeorandum for a good sampling of blogger reactions. The short version: People who supported Obama going in thought he won while those who supported McCain going in thought he won. Not surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of prominent undecideds blogging.
I got 27 emails from Patrick Hynes, McCain’s blogger outreach guy, between 8:51 and 11:36 Eastern rounding up “Debate Facts” (which, oddly, were numbered 1-13 and 16) and various pro-McCain or anti-Obama statements from pundits. Presumably, those on Obama’s list got similarly inundated.
Nothing much jumped out at me last night during the debates as wildly unfair. The biggest factual contention last night was Obama’s assertion that Henry Kissinger supported him and disagreed with McCain on the issue of talks with Iran. Here’s the exchange from the transcript:
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.
OBAMA: We will take a look.
Stephen Hayes got an on-the-record response from Kissinger:
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.
So, Obama is a lying liarface, right? Well, no. He’s referring to widely reported comments Kissinger made at a forum on September 20th. Here’s what Kissinger actually said:
Well, 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…
And 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.
So, what’s the difference? Kissinger is talking about negotiations at the plenipotentiary level — Secretary of State and lower — not the presidential level. Presidents simply don’t show up for talks without preconditions with hostile heads of state.
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.