BY LESLEY CLARK | MiamiHerald.com
President Bush defiantly stepped into the race to succeed him Thursday, chiding Sen. Barack Obama over his suggestion that he would talk with new Cuban leader Ra�l Castro.
Siding with Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who have criticized Obama’s stance, Bush told reporters at a White House news conference that talking with leaders such as Castro ‘‘would send the wrong message’’—to Castro, Cuba and the world.
‘‘Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Ra�l Castro . . . lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him,’’ Bush said. ‘He gains a lot from it by saying, `Look at me, I’m now recognized by the president of the United States.’ ‘’
Bush said he wouldn’t rule out ever meeting with Castro, but said ``now is not the time.
‘‘He’s nothing more than the extension of what his brother did, which was to ruin an island and imprison people because of their beliefs,’’ he said.
Campaigning in Texas, Obama returned fire, saying ``the American people aren’t looking for more of do-nothing Cuba policy that has failed to secure the release of dissidents, failed to bring democracy to the island and failed to advance freedom for 50 years.’‘
At a debate last week with Clinton—following Fidel Castro’s announced resignation—Obama, D-Ill., said he would be willing to meet with Cuba’s new leader, though 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.
Bush, never mentioning Obama by name, suggested he was misguided if he expected a meeting with Castro to yield results.
‘Now, somebody would say, `Well, I’m going to tell him to release the prisoners,’ ‘’ Bush said. ``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.’‘
McCain last week called Obama’s remarks ‘‘dangerously naive’’ and Clinton this week said it ``may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy.’‘
Obama’s campaign has argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba has failed and that Obama, in addition to engaging Castro, would also make it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit family on the island and send them cash remittances.
Bush said he wants changes on the island first.
‘‘I just remind people that the decisions of the U.S. president to have discussions with certain international figures can be extremely counterproductive,’’ he said. ``It can send chilling signals and messages to our allies; it can send confusion about our foreign policy; it discourages reformers inside their own country. And in my judgment, it would be a mistake.’’