WASHINGTON — During the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower often said that he would go anywhere, any time, any place in pursuit of peace.
Ike promoted co-existence with the former Soviet Union and invited Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to visit the United States.
Conservative Republicans were unhappy when President Richard M. Nixon made his surprise journey to hard-line communist China in 1972. But the move was mostly applauded as a diplomatic breakthrough, leading to better relations between the two nations.
The American people rejoiced at those peacemaking gestures and didn't think that Eisenhower — a World War II hero– was naive to talk to the Soviets with the goal of easing tensions between the two super powers, particularly since each had doomsday nuclear arsenals.
There were some hints and hopes — among liberals at least — that President Bill Clinton would open a dialogue with Cuba during his years in the White House. But he was not willing to take the risk and pay the political price — especially in Florida, traditional hot-bed of anti-Castro sentiment.
So it is disturbing for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to ridicule Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. — her main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination– for saying he would be willing to meet with the reviled leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and North Korea, if he's elected president.
And why not? What's wrong with diplomacy?
It may shock Clinton but we often deal with dictators and others who espouse policies that are distinctly at odds with U.S. goals.
Clinton is wrong and Obama is right. Both should be emphasizing the need for a more peaceful world and an end to the daily slaughter in Iraq that has shamed this country's world image. The first order of business for the new president in 2009 should be to repair the damage inflicted by President Bush's disastrous unilateralism.
The verbal sparring between the two Democratic senators over foreign policy has been reduced to name calling. Clinton tagged Obama's statement that he would be willing to talk to shunned leaders after he has won the White House as "irresponsible and frankly naive."
She was also quoted as saying:"I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year."
Her explanation: "You don't want to be used for their propaganda. You need to know their intentions. Such meetings can make the situation worse."
Furthermore, Clinton said she did not want "to see the power and prestige of the United States president put at risk by rushing into meetings" with Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and others.
Obama dubbed Clinton as "Bush-Cheney lite," which prompted the New York senator to fire back: "What has happened to the politics of hope"– a jab at Obama's campaign theme.
If it is any comfort to her, Clinton has been praised for her stand by the neo cons and conservative columnists who have been upset lately about Bush's decision to open a dialogue with Iran and to hold nuclear talks with North Korea.
Better late than never. Such diplomatic spadework led to a closer relationship with Libya after years of hostility.
The talks with North Korea could have been held at the start of the Bush administration but—-guided by his neo con advisers– Bush slammed the door at the time on any rapprochement with Pyongyang.
Now it seems the Iraq debacle has given Bush a new awakening to the limitations of power and the possibilities of diplomacy.
As for being naive, surely Clinton must have some regrets for her vote in 2002 to give the president carte blanche to invade Iraq, a sovereign country that did not attack us. She is trying to edge away from that mistake but still refuses to say that her vote was wrong.
Clinton claims that she and others were deceived by the administration's claims against Saddam Hussein, but 23 other senators voted "no" against the war. So who was naive?
Although he was not in the Senate at the time the vote was taken, Obama said he had opposed going to war with Iraq.
Shortly after the president declared "mission accomplished" in 2003, Clinton visited Iraq with Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. Both returned home, urging that more troops be sent to Baghdad.
Whoever wins the presidency next will have to put peace at the top of the agenda — and promise to explore the chance of better relations with any opposition early on.
© 2007 Hearst Newspapers