When President Bush travels to the Middle East on Tuesday, he will meet with selected leaders he counts as friends and bypass many others who are engaged in some of the region’s most pressing problems.
It is no surprise that leaders of Syria and Iran were not invited to meetings Bush has scheduled with other regional leaders in Egypt. Bush rarely speaks to them.
It would have sent shock waves through global politics had he invited anyone from the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Palestinian Hamas to any conference table. Both groups have gained considerable political standing. But Bush has nothing to do, of course, with groups the United States has labeled as terrorist organizations.
Bush’s practice of turning a cold or completely frozen shoulder to those he considers enemies has broadly defined his foreign policy, not only in the Middle East but also with respect to North Korea. It has garnered both support and criticism over the years — as well as defiance from prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who paid an official visit to Syria last year.
The talk, don’t talk issue
Now the talk vs. don’t talk debate is rolling toward the future as presidential hopefuls, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, spar over foreign policy.
Obama has declared many times that he would draw a far different line from Bush’s. His campaign web site says: “The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don’t like. Not talking doesn’t make us look tough — it makes us look arrogant, it denies us opportunities to make progress, and it makes it harder for America to rally international support for our leadership.”
It goes on to say, “Obama is willing to meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe. He will do the careful preparation necessary, but will signal that America is ready to come to the table, and that he is willing to lead.”
With Obama emerging as the presumed Democratic nominee, McCain is attacking him on that front in a bid to portray the Illinois senator as soft on terrorism and tepid in his support for Israel.
McCain on Ahmadinejad
Speaking at a news conference in New Jersey on Friday, McCain accused Obama of agreeing to negotiate with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who backs both Hamas and Hezbollah, the New York Times reported.
“Senator Obama wants to sit down and have negotiations and discussions with the person who just yesterday called Israel a quote ‘stinking corpse,’ ” McCain said, referring to Ahmadinejad, and “who continues to advocate quote ‘wiping Israel off the map.’ “
In a fundraising letter sent out in April, a spokesman for McCain wrote: “We need change in America, but not the kind of change that wins kind words from Hamas, surrenders in Iraq and will hold unconditional talks with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.”
Those accusations don’t square with the record, the Times reported.
“An examination of Mr. Obama’s numerous public statements on the subjects indicates that he has consistently condemned Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” has not sought the group’s support and does not advocate immediate, direct or unconditional negotiations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” the Times said.
In his own defense, Obama accused McCain of engaging in “smear tactics.” His response to the Hamas charge is that he and McCain propose the same policy. In 2006, they were co-sponsors of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which called on “members of the international community to avoid contact with and refrain from financially supporting the terrorist organization Hamas.”
Obama explains nuances of position
But Obama’s campaign struggled last week to explain the nuances of his position on speaking to the Iranian leader.
Susan E. Rice, a former State Department and National Security Council official who is a foreign-policy adviser to Obama, told the Times that it is a distortion of his views to suggest he would be willing to meet “unconditionally” with Ahmadinejad or the leader of any other so-called “rogue” state.
Explaining subtleties is no simple task in rough and tumble political campaigns. And voters can be forgiven for some confusion on the issue.
There is disagreement even among Democrats about where to draw the talk/don’t talk line. Like McCain, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has attacked Obama for his stated willingness to meet with foreign leaders who are hostile to the United States. Obama, in turn, soundly criticized former president Jimmy Carter last month for making overtures toward Hamas, Reuters reported.
“We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel’s destruction,” Obama said while speaking to a group of Jewish leaders in Pennsylvania. “We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements.”
Speaking by exclusion
In his own way, Bush is speaking this week to those he excludes by the very act of freezing them out of meetings where he and other leaders discuss urgent problems confronting the region.
“The trip will demonstrate the president’s steadfast opposition to extremists and their state sponsors, Iran and Syria, who are expending enormous energy to thwart opportunities for security, freedom and peace in the region,” National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told reporters last week in a briefing about the trip.
The Bush administration blames Iran and Syria for a bloody challenge Hezbollah is staging to the U.S.-backed government in Lebanon. Eighty-one people have been killed since May 7 in the fighting that is widely seen as a proxy confrontation between Iran and the United States, Reuters reported.
One of the leaders Bush is scheduled to meet in Egypt is Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Bush also will go to Saudi Arabia and Israel, where he will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding. Other leaders he plans to meet in Egypt are Afghan President Hamid Karzai, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.