Posted on Sat, Feb. 23, 2008 Kansas City Stat
By LESLEY CLARK
Barack Obama's offer to meet face to face with Fidel Castro's successor is "dangerously naive," Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Friday, testing out a potential fall campaign strategy to cast the Democratic presidential candidate as too inexperienced for the world stage.
Obama, who made the comment at a Thursday night debate with rival Hillary Clinton, rapidly returned fire, saying McCain "would give us four more years of the same Bush-McCain policies that have failed U.S. interests and the Cuban people for the last 50 years."
Though neither man has wrapped up his party's nomination, the volleys over Cuba policy provide a glimpse into what is shaping up to be their lines of attack: McCain will present himself as an experienced, steady hand and criticize Obama's lack of foreign policy experience; Obama, if the Democratic nominee, will present himself as a fresh start and McCain as a return to the Bush years.
"This is the thrust and parry we'll hear throughout the campaign," said David Johnson, former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. "Obama's going to try to tie McCain to the less popular parts of the Bush administration ... and McCain is going to say, `This is most important job in the world and he doesn't have the relevant experience to do it.' "
Asked at Thursday's debate in Texas whether he'd meet with Raul Castro, his brother's likely successor, Obama said he would. "I do think that it's important for the United States not just to talk to its friends, but also to talk to its enemies," he said. "That's where diplomacy makes the biggest difference."
Though Obama said he would be willing to meet with the Cuban leader "without preconditions," he added that the encounter would happen only after both sides came up with an agenda that included human rights, the release of political prisoners and freedom of the press.
Clinton took a more cautious approach, saying she wouldn't meet with Fidel Castro's successor without "evidence that change was happening."
McCain noted Friday that Obama, as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2003, supported the "normalization of relations with Fidel Castro." Obama said Thursday night he supports "the eventual normalization."
"Obama said that as president he'd meet with the imprisoned island's new leader `without preconditions,"' McCain said. "So Raul Castro gets an audience with an American president, and all the prestige such a meeting confers, without having to release political prisoners, allow free media, political parties, and labor unions, or schedule internationally monitored free elections."
"Meet, talk and hope may be a sound approach in a state legislature," McCain said in a dig at Obama's experience as a state senator before his 2004 Senate election. "But it is dangerously naive in international diplomacy where the oppressed look to America for hope and adversaries wish us ill."
A McCain adviser said his campaign didn't criticize Clinton's remarks because she didn't say she'd meet with Castro with no restrictions.
Obama didn't retreat Friday, saying in an e-mail that he'd call for an "immediate change in policy to allow for unlimited family travel and remittances to the island." President Bush tightened restrictions on family travel and remittances in 2004, limiting Cuban-Americans to visiting their relatives on the island once every three years and capping remittances at $100 per month.
"In November, the American people will have a clear choice: a new direction versus more war in Iraq, more not talking to leaders we don't like and more of a Cuba policy that has failed to achieve freedom for the Cuban people," Obama said. "I am confident that the American people will choose the promise of the future over the failed policies and predictable political attacks of the past."
The remarks on meeting with Castro could be troublesome for Cuban Democrats, many of whom support lifting restrictions on travel and remittances but stop short of advocating talks with Cuban leaders unless democratic changes occur on the island.
The state Republican Party used the remarks to fire a broadside at the three Democrats challenging South Florida's three Republican Cuban-American members of Congress.
One of the challengers, former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who wants to unseat Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, said he disagrees with Obama.
"Unless the Castros show a willingness to change the way they conduct business, release political prisoners, allow more participation of the Cuban people, we should not sit down with them," said Martinez, who has endorsed Clinton.
"If Obama becomes the official nominee I'm pretty sure he will have modifications to some of his positions," Martinez said.
Actually if Obama is the nominee, Raul Martinez will no longer be bound to support Hillary Clinton's position which is very similar to the Bush Administration's.
Obama needs to also speak out for non-tourist travel. At a time when Cuba is engaged in wide ranging discussions of economic and social reform, world affairs councils, religious and humanitarian organizations, short term study programs, cultural groups, sports teams, etc. should be going to Cuba as they did before 2004.
It doesn't mean much economically, but it does mean a diversity of Americans can make their own judgment about the process underway in Cuba, as well as help create a bilateral atmosphere favorable to reform. Of course that is exactly what the hard liners in Miami are afraid of.