WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama found himself embroiled in a new foreign policy flap with rival Hillary Clinton on Thursday, this time over the use of nuclear weapons.
Obama ruled out the use of nuclear weapons to go after al Qaeda or Taliban targets in Afghanistan or Pakistan, prompting Clinton to say presidents never take the nuclear option off the table, and extending their feud over whether Obama has enough experience to be elected president in November 2008.
Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, told a reporter after a Capitol Hill event that he would not use nuclear weapons in those countries, an aide said.
"His position could not be more clear," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "He would not consider using nuclear weapons to fight terror targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
That position came a day after Obama vowed he would be willing to strike al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan with or without the approval of the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Obama struck the tough tone after Clinton accused him of being naive and irresponsible for saying in a debate last week he would be willing to meet without preconditions the leaders of hostile nations Iran, Cuba, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela in his first year in office.
Clinton's position was that she would only meet those leaders after careful lower-level diplomacy bore fruit. Obama said she represented conventional thinking in line with that of the Bush administration and would not bring the fundamental change Americans need.
The New York senator and former first lady quickly pounced on Obama's remark about nuclear weapons at a Capitol Hill news conference.
"I think presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use, or non-use, of nuclear weapons," she said.
"Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons," she said.
Obama's campaign clarified its stance later in the day.
"If we had actionable intelligence about the existence of high-level al Qaeda targets like Osama bin Laden, Senator Obama would act and is confident that conventional means would be sufficient to take the target down," Psaki said. "Frankly we're surprised that others would disagree."
The sharpest disputes of the Democratic race have come as Obama, aiming to become the first black U.S. president, struggles to close a big polling gap on Clinton.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center said Clinton now holds a nearly two-to-one lead over Obama in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with the support of 40 percent of Democrats to 21 percent for Obama.
Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd, a senator from Connecticut, also criticized Obama, saying that over the last several days, "Senator Obama's assertions about foreign and military affairs have been, frankly, confusing and confused. He has made threats he should not make and made unwise categorical statements about military options."
"We are facing a dangerous and complicated world. The next president will require a level of understanding and judgment unprecedented in American history to address these challenges," Dodd said.
Nuclear deterrence has been a tenet of American foreign policy since the Cold War.
Obama, outlining his foreign policy ideas in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, said the United States and Russia should work together to "de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons," and avoid rushing to produce a new generation of atomic weapons, while still "maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent."