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2008 hopefuls and heads of state

Once again, a spat has broken out between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama over whose life experience will help him or her exercise better judgment in foreign relations.
/ Source: National Journal

Once again, a spat has broken out between and over whose life experience will help him or her exercise better judgment in foreign relations.

During remarks delivered Tuesday in Iowa, Clinton argued her experience is superior because she has met so many world leaders.

"I have traveled the world on behalf of our country -- first in the White House with my husband and now as senator. I have met with countless world leaders and know many of them personally."

She mocked Obama for saying that his experience living in Indonesia as a child gave him a visceral understanding of "how ordinary people in these other countries live."

Obama shot back sarcastically: "I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq." He added that Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with many world leaders and "led us into the one of the worst foreign policy disasters we've entered."

Does past experience meeting with world leaders qualify someone to perform better on the world stage?

In August, when this issue came up previously, National Journal asked each campaign to list each of the world leaders with whom their candidate had met and, when possible, to explain the circumstances. As of August 1, Clinton had met with 91 world leaders. Most of the meetings took place when she was first lady, including 15 trips in which she accompanied her husband on an official visit. The rest were solo encounters in which she met with leaders to discuss regional issues or policy, especially policy relating to human rights and womens' rights.

Obama, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had met with 16 world leaders as of August 1. Others in the race — especially senators who have served in Washington for decades — had built up impressive global track records. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a 35-year veteran of the Senate, had chatted up roughly 105 heads of state by last August. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Ct., had met with at least 97. Sen. , R-Ariz., only listed the 32 leaders with whom he'd met in the last few years.

Republican remembered meeting with roughly 28 leaders of foreign countries, most while he was mayor of New York City. (R) held talks with seven heads of state during and since his term as Massachusetts governor. New Mexico Gov. (D), a former diplomatic troubleshooter, met with at least 33 leaders — including some tough customers, such as Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein.

Republican iconoclast Ron Paul, who doesn't care much for traditional benchmarks, has met with just one.

Do past meetings with prime ministers and generalissimos matter? Perhaps. Voters would no doubt like to choose a president who could give the hairy eyeball to a menacing leader but could also charm a strongman into backing down.

In the past, some candidates have struggled to convince voters that they could handle world leaders. Democrat Michael Dukakis, then a governor, announced frequently during his 1988 bid that he had met with the president of Costa Rica. Reporters began to snicker. In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush couldn't name the leaders of Pakistan, India or Chechnya. He brushed it off.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the other hand, knew so many foreign leaders that he boasted a few of them wanted him to win in 2004. Some voters suspected he was talking about the French — which was not particularly helpful to his campaign. And even a pro on the world stage can stumble. Remember the peck on the cheek Hillary Clinton gave Yasser Arafat's wife, much to her later regret?

Presidential historian Richard Reeves, who has written biographies of former Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, said "personal relationships between leaders are tremendously important" and argued that the chemistry between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was crucial in ending the Cold War. But for most presidents, he added, "It doesn't matter if they met [the leaders] before they became president. It's how they handle relationships when they get there."