OBAMA vs. CLINTON….OK, so at Monday’s YouTube debate Barack Obama was asked if he’d meet with assorted foreign baddies “without precondition” and he said he would. Hillary Clinton, sharp debater that she is, spied an opening and shot back that she wouldn’t meet with anyone until the diplomatic groundwork had been set. Boo yah! Obama is naive! Point for Hillary!

Fine. Whatever. This seemed like a pretty minor gotcha to me, since it rises and falls on the assumption that Obama was saying he’d literally hop onto Air Force One and jet off to Caracas a couple of weeks after his inauguration. In other words, silly season stuff.

But no! Obama and Clinton have now spent the entire weeking exchanging barbs over this. And Brian Beutler thinks this is a good thing:

I think the escalating rhetorical battle the two senators is perhaps the only helpful instance of campaign jousting I’ve ever seen. At the same time, I only think I’ll believe that as long as Barack Obama wins, or at least puts up a good show. Because what we are seeing is, in as close to an unfiltered way as possible, a standoff between a status quo foreign policy and a much more constructive (though I hesitate to say new) direction.

Certainly what you’re hearing from Clinton and Obama is a healthier debate than what you’re hearing from journalists. Clinton’s basic position is that Obama has, by announcing his intent to engage enemy leaders, proven that he’s too naive to set the country’s foreign policy. Obama, on the other hand, contends that Clinton’s foreign policy ideas are too similar to George Bush’s for comfort. As far as I’m concerned, I think Obama’s argument is basically correct and Hillary’s argument is totally nuts, but in any case both arguments are pretty close facsimiles to what the two candidates actually believe about foreign policy.

Hmmm. So not silly season stuff after all? That’s an interesting thought, though it’s worth pointing out that Obama’s original answer to the debate question included the following caveat: “One of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.” Is there really a substantive difference between Obama’s plan to “send a signal” and Clinton’s plan to “use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters”? If there is, it’s a mighty small one.

Still, I take Brian’s point. It’s rare to have a discussion about foreign policy that actually revolves around a concrete point, and by foreign policy standards this one counts as at least a mud brick point. Basically, do you think the United States should, as a routine part of its foreign policy, say that it’s willing to talk to any country that’s willing to talk to us? That the mere act of talking isn’t a tacit capitulation to a rogue regime’s demands?

I sure think so, and not just for the obvious reason that talking can sometimes lead to actual results. The bigger reason is that if you talk routinely, then the mere act of talking isn’t a tacit capitulation to a rogue regime’s demands and can’t possibly be spun that way. It’s just something we do.

So: not such a bad discussion after all. More heat than light, to be sure, but even a little bit of light is welcome in the darkness that defines American foreign policy these days.