Cillizza uncritically reported false claim that Obama misrepresented Kissinger's comments on talks with Iran

››› ››› ANDREW WALZER

On washingtonpost.com, Chris Cillizza uncritically reported Sen. John McCain's false claim that Sen. Barack Obama had misrepresented comments former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had made about negotiating with Iran, writing that "McCain was able to turn a single question about meeting with rogue leaders into an extended colloquy that ended with him hitting Obama for misunderstanding Henry Kissinger." In fact, Obama accurately represented Kissinger's comments about negotiations with Iran.

Following the September 26 presidential debate, in a post on his washingtonpost.com blog, staff writer Chris Cillizza uncritically reported Sen. John McCain's false claim that Sen. Barack Obama had misrepresented comments former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had made about negotiating with Iran. Cillizza wrote: "McCain absolutely hammered Obama over his pledge to meet with rogue foreign leaders without preconditions," and later added, "McCain was able to turn a single question about meeting with rogue leaders into an extended colloquy that ended with him hitting Obama for misunderstanding Henry Kissinger. A very good moment for McCain." In fact, as Media Matters for America noted, Obama accurately represented Kissinger's comments about negotiations with Iran.

During the debate Obama said, "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," and, "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." During the debate, McCain repeatedly purported to correct Obama by saying Kissinger would not support presidential-level talks with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Each time, Obama made clear that was not his contention -- that, instead, he was accurately saying Kissinger supported talks between the United States and Iran at levels below the president.

Obama's comments during the debate accurately reflected Kissinger's comments during a September 15 forum. Kissinger 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 preferred doing it at the secretary of state level so that we -- we know we're dealing with authentic -- with authentic proposals." Asked by CNN's Frank Sesno, "To put at a very high level right out of the box?" Kissinger responded:

Initially, yes. 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.

In contrast to Cillizza's post, in a September 27 Los Angeles Times fact check, staff writers Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes reported that "Obama was right when he said that Kissinger, in a recent appearance with other secretaries of State in Washington, said U.S. officials should talk to Iranian officials without preconditions." Furthermore, they noted that "McCain, in response, mischaracterized what Obama had just said. He implied that Obama had said Kissinger approved of presidential level contacts with Iran. The Democrat did not say that."

From Cillizza's blog post:

McCain's strongest moment of the debate also happened to be Obama's weakest. McCain absolutely hammered Obama over his pledge to meet with rogue foreign leaders without preconditions and Obama had no ready answer -- odd since he had to know this attack was coming. McCain was able to turn a single question about meeting with rogue leaders into an extended colloquy that ended with him hitting Obama for misunderstanding Henry Kissinger. A very good moment for McCain.

From CNN's transcript of the September 26 presidential debate:

JIM LEHRER (moderator): Senator, what about talking?

McCAIN: Senator Obama twice said in debates he would sit down with Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Raul Castro without precondition. Without precondition. Here is Ahmadinenene [sic], Ahmadinejad, who is, Ahmadinejad, who is now in New York, talking about the extermination of the State of Israel, of wiping Israel off the map, and we're going to sit down, without precondition, across the table, to legitimize and give a propaganda platform to a person that is espousing the extermination of the state of Israel, and therefore then giving them more credence in the world arena and therefore saying, they've probably been doing the right thing, because you will sit down across the table from them and that will legitimize their illegal behavior.

The point is that throughout history, whether it be Ronald Reagan, who wouldn't sit down with Brezhnev, Andropov or Chernenko until Gorbachev was ready with glasnost and perestroika.

Or whether it be Nixon's trip to China, which was preceded by Henry Kissinger, many times before he went. Look, I'll sit down with anybody, but there's got to be pre-conditions. Those pre-conditions would apply that we wouldn't legitimize with a face to face meeting, a person like Ahmadinejad. Now, Senator Obama said, without preconditions.

OBAMA: So let's talk about this. First of all, Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he may not be the right person to talk to. But I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe.

And I'm glad that Senator McCain brought up the history, the bipartisan history of us engaging in direct diplomacy.

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.

But I will point out that I was called naive when I suggested that we need to look at exploring contacts with Iran. And you know what? President Bush recently sent a senior ambassador, Bill Burns, to participate in talks with the Europeans around the issue of nuclear weapons.

Again, it may not work, but if it doesn't work, then we have strengthened our ability to form alliances to impose the tough sanctions that Senator McCain just mentioned.

And when we haven't done it, as in North Korea -- let me just take one more example -- in North Korea, we cut off talks. They're a member of the axis of evil. We can't deal with them.

And you know what happened? They went -- they quadrupled their nuclear capacity. They tested a nuke. They tested missiles. They pulled out of the nonproliferation agreement. And they sent nuclear secrets, potentially, to countries like Syria.

When we re-engaged -- because, again, the Bush administration reversed course on this -- then we have at least made some progress, although right now, because of the problems in North Korea, we are seeing it on shaky ground.

And -- and I just -- so I just have to make this general point that the Bush administration, some of Senator McCain's own advisers all think this is important, and Senator McCain appears resistant.

He even said the other day that he would not meet potentially with the prime minister of Spain, because he -- you know, he wasn't sure whether they were aligned with us. I mean, Spain? Spain is a NATO ally.

McCAIN: Of course.

OBAMA: If we can't meet with our friends, I don't know how we're going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism.

McCAIN: I'm not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I'm president of the United States. I don't even have a seal yet.

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.

As far as North Korea is concerned, our secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, went to North Korea. By the way, North Korea, most repressive and brutal regime probably on Earth. The average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean, a huge gulag.

We don't know what the status of the dear leader's health is today, but we know this, that the North Koreans have broken every agreement that they've entered into.

And we ought to go back to a little bit of Ronald Reagan's "trust, but verify," and certainly not sit down across the table from -- without precondition, as Senator Obama said he did twice, I mean, it's just dangerous.

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.

And, you know, the Bush administration has come to recognize that it hasn't worked, this notion that we are simply silent when it comes to our enemies. And the notion that we would sit with Ahmadinejad and not say anything while he's spewing his nonsense and his vile comments is ridiculous. Nobody is even talking about that.

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.

McCAIN: And I guarantee you he would not -- he would not say that presidential top level.

OBAMA: Nobody's talking about that.

McCAIN: Of course he encourages and other people encourage contacts, and negotiations, and all other things. We do that all the time.

LEHRER: We're going to go to a new...

McCAIN: And Senator Obama is parsing words when he says precondition means preparation.

OBAMA: I am not parsing words.

McCAIN: He's parsing words, my friends.

OBAMA: I'm using the same words that your advisers use.

Please, go ahead.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
Chris Cillizza
Stories/Interests
John McCain, 2008 Elections
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