Without directly mentioning his name, President Bush took a broad swipe at Sen. Barack Obama during his news conference on Thursday, equating Obama's willingness to talk with foreign leaders (both allied and adversarial) to "embracing" tyrants.
The topic of conversation centered on what U.S. policy to Cuba should be in the aftermath of Fidel Castro handing control of the island to his brother Raul. Taking what appeared to be particular pride in having never negotiated with America's enemies, Bush said:
"[Meeting with Raul] will send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity. I'm not suggesting there's never a time to talk, but I'm suggesting now is not the time not to talk with Raul Castro."
Dispensing the confusion over what time, exactly, would be appropriate, the reporter who asked the question reminded Bush that no one is saying the U.S should embrace Raul Castro but merely engage the new leader. The president conceded the point, only to ridicule the concept of negotiating-with-your-enemies as "embracing" tyrants once more.
"Sitting down at the table -- having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him. He gains a lot from it by saying, 'look at me, I'm now recognized by the President of the United States.' Now, somebody will say, well, I'm going to tell him to release the prisoners.
Well, it's a theory that all you got to do is embrace and these tyrants act. That's not how they act. That's not what causes them to respond. So I made a decision quite the opposite, and that is to keep saying to the Cuba books people, we stand with you. We will not sit down with your leaders that imprison your people because of what they believe. We will keep an embargo on you. We do want you to have money from people here in the homeland, but we will stay insistent upon this policy until you begin to get free."
For reference, here's what Obama said about meeting with Raul Castro during the Democratic debate in Austin, Texas on Feb. 22:
OBAMA:Now, keep in mind that the starting point for our policy in -- in Cuba should be the liberty of the Cuban people. And I think we recognize that that liberty has not existed throughout the Castro regime. And we now have an opportunity to potentially change the relationship between the United States and Cuba, after over half a century.
I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation. It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda and on that agenda was human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time.
But I do think that it is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies.
In fact, that's where diplomacy makes the biggest difference. (Applause.)
One other thing that I've said as a show of good faith, that we're interested in pursuing potentially a new relationship, what I've called for is a loosening of the restrictions on remittances from family members to the people of Cuba as well as travel restrictions for family members who want to visit their family members in Cuba. And I think that initiating that change in policy as a start and then suggesting that an agenda get set up is something that could be useful, but I would not normalize relations until we started seeing some of the progress that Senator Clinton talked about. [...]
I do think it is important, precisely because the Bush administration has done so much damage to American foreign relations, that the president take a more active role in diplomacy than might have been true 20 or 30 years ago.
Because the problem isn't -- is if we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time, and I think that it's important for us, in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step. That's the kind of step that I would like to take as president of the United States.