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Did candidate Obama call world leaders in 2008?

Friday ushered in a surreal new chapter in the duel between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney over how to approach relations with Israel and Iran’s nuclear program, as both candidates hopped on phone calls with Benjamin Netanyahu a day after the Israeli prime minister delivered a fiery U.N. address on red lines for Iran in ...

The White House
The White House

Friday ushered in a surreal new chapter in the duel between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney over how to approach relations with Israel and Iran’s nuclear program, as both candidates hopped on phone calls with Benjamin Netanyahu a day after the Israeli prime minister delivered a fiery U.N. address on red lines for Iran in New York.

During Obama’s conversation with Netanyahu (see photo above), the White House announced, "the two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." Romney told reporters that while he and the Israeli leader spoke about red lines in a subsequent chat, they did not delve into the "kind of detail" that "would define precisely where that red line would be."

The bizarre episode raises the question: Is it normal for presidential candidates to insert themselves into global events by dialing up heads of state? In fact, Obama did pretty much the same thing — multiple times, no less — as a candidate during the 2008 campaign.

Obama, like Romney, embarked on a foreign trip as a candidate, meeting face-to-face with leaders such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (headline: "Obama Talks Tough About Iran During Visit to Israel"). But he also placed several phone calls.

In January 2008, for example, Obama reached out to the two leaders at the center of a bitterly disputed election in Kenya, his father’s homeland. "What I urged was that all the leaders there, regardless of their position on the election, tell their supporters to stand down," Obama explained at the time. The Bush-era State Department, which coordinated the calls with Obama, praised the effort. "Any time you have a person of stature … who is pushing for a peaceful, political resolution, that’s a positive thing," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Then, after hostilities erupted between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, both Obama and Republican challenger John McCain phoned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, while condemning Russia for violating Georgia’s sovereignty. In fact, the candidates called Saakashvili so frequently — the Georgian leader said he heard from them "pretty often" — that it became a bit of a contest; when pressed by Fox News, Saakashvili conceded that McCain had called first but that Obama was "very supportive." In September, the prime minister requested a call with Obama to thank him for mentioning Georgia in his convention speech.

The campaign-trail diplomacy didn’t stop at phone calls. McCain sent two of his allies in the Senate — Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — to Georgia at the height of the conflict, while Joe Biden, then a leading contender to be Obama’s running mate, made the trip himself.

Perhaps that’s the lesson: We’ll know this is getting out of hand when Romney dispatches campaign surrogates to Jerusalem.

Friday ushered in a surreal new chapter in the duel between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney over how to approach relations with Israel and Iran’s nuclear program, as both candidates hopped on phone calls with Benjamin Netanyahu a day after the Israeli prime minister delivered a fiery U.N. address on red lines for Iran in New York.

During Obama’s conversation with Netanyahu (see photo above), the White House announced, "the two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." Romney told reporters that while he and the Israeli leader spoke about red lines in a subsequent chat, they did not delve into the "kind of detail" that "would define precisely where that red line would be."

The bizarre episode raises the question: Is it normal for presidential candidates to insert themselves into global events by dialing up heads of state? In fact, Obama did pretty much the same thing — multiple times, no less — as a candidate during the 2008 campaign.

Obama, like Romney, embarked on a foreign trip as a candidate, meeting face-to-face with leaders such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (headline: "Obama Talks Tough About Iran During Visit to Israel"). But he also placed several phone calls.

In January 2008, for example, Obama reached out to the two leaders at the center of a bitterly disputed election in Kenya, his father’s homeland. "What I urged was that all the leaders there, regardless of their position on the election, tell their supporters to stand down," Obama explained at the time. The Bush-era State Department, which coordinated the calls with Obama, praised the effort. "Any time you have a person of stature … who is pushing for a peaceful, political resolution, that’s a positive thing," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Then, after hostilities erupted between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, both Obama and Republican challenger John McCain phoned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, while condemning Russia for violating Georgia’s sovereignty. In fact, the candidates called Saakashvili so frequently — the Georgian leader said he heard from them "pretty often" — that it became a bit of a contest; when pressed by Fox News, Saakashvili conceded that McCain had called first but that Obama was "very supportive." In September, the prime minister requested a call with Obama to thank him for mentioning Georgia in his convention speech.

The campaign-trail diplomacy didn’t stop at phone calls. McCain sent two of his allies in the Senate — Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — to Georgia at the height of the conflict, while Joe Biden, then a leading contender to be Obama’s running mate, made the trip himself.

Perhaps that’s the lesson: We’ll know this is getting out of hand when Romney dispatches campaign surrogates to Jerusalem.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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