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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Chummy with Chavez?

If it’s loud, profanity-laced, anti-American vitriol from a foreign leader you’re looking for, Hugo Chavez is your man. And a new McCain-Palin ad, running in Florida, tries to make it appear that Obama would begin cuddling up to the Venezuelan leader first thing after testing out his Oval Office desk chair. According to the McCain-Palin campaign, the ad is running in Florida. Here it is in English, but there’s a Spanish version as well.

The facts cited by the announcer in this ad are all correct. They go back to an answer he gave in a Democratic primary debate in 2007:

Question, July 27, 2007 debate: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

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…

 An uproar ensued, and ever since Obama has been explaining that, to him, “without preconditions” doesn’t mean “without preparation.” That would include lower-level diplomatic communications, for instance, he has said. Obama has a section of his Web site devoted to diplomacy.

As he told the Kansas City Star a year ago: “The argument was that I would invite Hugo Chavez over to my house, and we’d pop open a beer and we’d start talking. …That’s the lack of preparation,” and not at all what he meant. And here’s what Obama told the Orlando Sentinel last May about his willingness to meet with Chavez:

Obama, May 22, 2008: One of the obvious high priorities in my talks with President Hugo Chavez would be the fermentation of anti-American sentiment in Latin America, his support of FARC in Colombia and other issues he would want to talk about. It is important to understand that ignoring these countries has not led to improved behavior on their part and it has not served our national security interests.

There needs to be a shift in foreign politics and return to traditional foreign politics that were supported by both Republicans and Democrats in the past.

He also told the Sentinel what he’d say to the leader of Cuba, another adversary and one about whom many Floridians care a great deal.

Obama: The freedom of the Cuban people would be my top goal with President Raul Castro. As well as the release of political prisoners, democracy and the freedom of religious worship.

We noted Sarah Palin’s GOP convention mockery of Obama on this subject in a recent article. Yet, we wondered, if direct diplomacy is so silly, why has the Bush administration been opening diplomatic channels with some of the same nations that Bush once referred to as the “axis of evil”?

The administration sent an envoy to Geneva this summer to sit in on nuclear talks with Iran. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to North Korea in July to speak with her counterpart about ending that country’s nuclear weapons program. (That initiative may not be going so well at the moment). The incidents were widely noted to be a departure from the White House’s previous position on meeting with “foes.”

For the record, Obama’s never met Chavez, according to his campaign.