When, in the South Carolina debate, Barack Obama said he would meet with the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran and North Korea in his first year as president, he stepped into a cow pie.
Hillary pounced, declaring that in a Clinton White House, there would be no promised first-year meetings with any dictator or enemy of the United States.
The morning headline in Miami roared that Obama was open to meeting Fidel. In the Jewish community, word was surely being moved that Obama had opened the door to a face-to-face meeting with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust skeptic who has predicted the Israeli state is not long for the Middle East -- and should be transplanted to Europe.
Pundits watching that Citadel debate scored Hillary the winner, contrasting her presidential sobriety with Obama's puppy enthusiasm for talking to tyrants.
Why, then, with press and politicians declaring her the winner, did Hillary Clinton have to step in and clock Obama after she won the fight?
The day after the debate, Hillary said Obama had exposed himself as "irresponsible and naive."
This gave Barack, who had been busy explaining what he had meant, an opening to declare that what was "irresponsible and naive" was Sen. Clinton's vote to give George Bush a blank check to plunge us into a war in Iraq most Democrats have come to believe was the worst strategic blunder in U.S. history.
Instead of Barack's impetuosity being the issue, Hillary's war vote is now front and center, her greatest vulnerability in seeking the nomination of an antiwar party. Her eagerness to exploit Obama's blunder also suggests a lack of serenity and confidence in her double-digit lead over Obama.
In the next debate, Hillary is certain to be put on the defensive about her war vote, and Obama has been liberated, by her throwing the first punch, to hit back hard -- on his strongest issue, the war.
A surprising mistake by Sen. Clinton, who has run something close to a flawless campaign. But there is a more substantive issue here. That is the gravamen of the original question.
Should not the United States be in constant contact with those we see as enemies, to prevent irreconcilable differences from leading us into war? Here, Obama's instincts are not wrong.
During World War II and the Cold War, FDR and Harry Truman met with Josef Stalin. Ike invited the "Butcher of Budapest" for a 10-day tour of the United States and tete-a-tete at Camp David. JFK met Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna -- after he declared, "We will bury you." Richard Nixon went to China and toasted the tyrant responsible for the deaths of thousands of GIs in Korea and greatest mass murderer of the last century, Mao Zedong.
None of the five with whom Obama said he would meet is in the same league with these monsters of the 20th century.
Kim Jong-il has not launched a war on South Korea or tried to assassinate its prime minister and entire cabinet, as his father, Kim Il-Sung, did. Syria's Bashir al-Assad has yet to fight his first war and has never perpetrated the kind of massacre his father did in Homa. Yet, George H.W. Bush welcomed Hafez al-Assad as a fighting ally in the Gulf War.
Castro is the same evil tyrant he has always been. But Vice President Nixon survived meeting him, and he is surely less dangerous than the young Fidel, who reportedly urged the Soviets to fire their Cuban-based missiles at the United States, rather than pull them out.
Hugo Chavez is an anti-American demagogue, but also the twice-elected president of Venezuela. How does he threaten "The Republic That Never Retreats"? As for Ahmadinejad, he is not the supreme leader of Iran, and his nation has not launched a war since the Revolution of 1979. With no atomic weapons, no ICBMs, no air force to challenge ours, no navy, an economy 2 percent of ours and its oil reserves running out, Iran is scarcely an existential threat to the United States.
All of these rulers wish to be seen as defying the United States, but not one of them -- not North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela or Iran -- can seriously be seeking a major war with the United States that would bring wreckage and ruin to any or all of them.
What we have in common with them is that neither of us wants a hot war. As for a cold war, does any one of these nations represent a long-term strategic or ideological threat to a United States of 300 million, with 30 percent of the world's economy, and the best air force, navy and army on earth, and a nuclear arsenal of thousands of weapons?
If Bush can bring Libya's Muammar Khadafi, who was responsible for Pan Am 103, the Lockerbie massacre of American school kids, in from the cold, why cannot we talk with Hamas and Hezbollah and Assad and Ahmadinejad?
What has any of them done to us compared to what Khadafi did?
Though poorly stated, Barack Obama had a point.