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McCain-Obama debate on Iran heats up, with added fuel from Bush

President Bush speaks to the Knesset in Jerusalem May 15.
REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Bush speaks to the Knesset in Jerusalem May 15.

Tuesday’s primaries turned out as expected — a split, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton winning big in Kentucky and Sen. Barack Obama doing the same in Oregon. As Obama inches closer to the Democratic nomination, media attention has begun to turn to his possible matchup with Republican Sen. John McCain, where one of the key issues is expected to be foreign policy, particularly how to deal with Iran. And the debate has been joined.

The New York Times reported that “Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has criticized Mr. Obama for saying he would meet with the leaders of Iran, calling such a position naïve. Mr. Obama has countered by saying the current policy toward Iran is misguided and noting that the United States had been willing to meet with the leaders of the Soviet Union, which posed a far greater threat to country at the time.”

The debate heated up Monday with McCain saying, “Obviously, Iran isn’t a superpower and doesn’t possess the military power the Soviet Union had. But that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant.” The Times quoted McCain as saying that Obama’s willingness to meet with Iranian leaders without conditions “betrays the depth of Senator Obama’s inexperience and reckless judgment.”

Engage with friends, enemies

Obama, according to the Times, countered that “the threat from Iran is grave, but what I have said is we should not just be willing to talk to our friends, we should engage with our enemies as well. That is what diplomacy is all about.”

“Obama said that during the most dangerous period of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy had been willing to meet with the Soviets to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis,” The Times reported.

Newsday’s Craig Gordon wrote, “The ferocity of Obama-McCain exchanges sounded more like mid-October than mid-May, as the two expected nominees battled like they’ve been itching for this slow-motion fight to get serious. … To be sure, this is usually dangerous ground for a Democrat like Obama — and Republicans succeeded in raising doubts about (John) Kerry even though he was a highly decorated vet who served in Vietnam. Republican strategists can barely contain their enthusiasm for the chance to do the same to Obama — whom they believe is particularly vulnerable due to his relative youth, and his lack of military or hands-on foreign policy experience. Plus, Obama’s opponent is a man many voters see as a genuine Vietnam war hero.”

But Obama seems to be fighting back in two ways, Newsday said. “One is a political argument — in keeping with his call to move beyond old partisan battles, he’s trying to persuade voters not to be swayed by the same Republican attacks as before. The second is pure policy — he’s arguing that the Republicans’ supposedly tough approach overseas actually was severely misguided, with Exhibit A being the war in Iraq.”

Bush raised stakes in Knesset speech
While the foreign-policy debate has been going on for some time, it became more focused late last week when President Bush, addressing the Israeli Knesset, said, according to Newsday:

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is —  the false comfort of appeasement.”

Obama and other Democrats took offense, immediately chastising the president for what they said was “politicizing” foreign affairs and making a veiled attack on Obama. The president and his spokespeople later denied the remarks were aimed at Obama. But the lines were drawn. Obama responded, according to Newsday:

“I was offended by what is a continuation of a strategy from this White House, now mimicked by Senator McCain, that replaces strategy and analysis and smart policy with bombast, exaggerations and fear-mongering. … If they want a debate about protecting the United States of America, that’s a debate I’m ready to win because George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for.”

Kondracke vs. Barnes

The foreign-policy debate, which at least is over substantive issues, has caused a stir among the commentators. In a Fox News discussion last Friday, Roll Call Editor Morton Kondracke said:

“Here’s what Obama said he would do. He would go with preparation to Iran and say that Iran should stop threatening Israel, stand down from nuclear weapons, stop funding Hamas, and stop stirring up problems inside Iraq. And if they didn’t agree, then he would proceed with sanctions. Now, that is not appeasement. Appeasement refers to 1938, Neville Chamberlain goes to Munich and says, OK, Hitler, you can have the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia, and we hope to buy peace in our time. Obama is not saying he will tell Ahmadinejad (the Iranian President), go ahead and take Lebanon, just leave us alone. So, enough. … But the idea that George Bush has strengthened our position against Iran by not talking to them? I mean, Hezbollah is stronger. Hamas is stronger. The Iranians are working on nuclear weapons. Clearly what Bush has done with Iran is counterproductive.”

Konracke’s counterweight on the program, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, disagreed:

“I think you have to stop and think who provoked this fight in the first place? It wasn’t President Bush. It was Barack Obama. Barack Obama wasn’t named in that speech. And if you listened to Ed Gillespie and Dana Perino on the record will say it wasn’t aimed at him. It was Jimmy Carter about who the words apply, I would think. But they didn’t want to make this — they made it broader because they thought Jimmy Carter might complain, and they weren’t aiming at any particular person. Obama made this an issue because he is very sensitive on this gaffe about meeting Ahmadinejad with no preconditions.”

As though he anticipated the foreign-policy debate flap, Obama, in a lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly, before the president went to the Middle East last week, said: “So I welcome the Muslim world’s accurate perception that I am interested in opening up dialogue and interested in moving away from the unilateral policies of George Bush, but nobody should mistake that for a softer stance when it comes to terrorism or when it comes to protecting Israel’s security or making sure that the alliance is strong and firm. You will not see, under my presidency, any slackening in commitment to Israel’s security.”

Editorial reactions in the Mideast
The president’s speech in Israel and his visit to the Mideast was not only the topic of conversation here, but across the region as well. The BBC cited editorial reaction in a dozen papers in Israel and the Arab world. For example, the Palestinian paper Al-Quds wrote that “at a time when the Israeli and international media outlets are full of reports about the celebrations of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) is ignored. The US position would have looked balanced had President Bush made a symbolic gesture to the feelings of the Palestinians who marked the Nakba anniversary.”

The Israeli paper Ha’aretz wrote:

“Bush said: ‘Masada shall never fall again.’ It is possible to interpret this statement on two levels: determination to prevent Iran from obtaining the capacity to destroy Israel, and understanding of Israel’s position should it be pushed to the wall and take action to deter its enemies.”

With Obama winning a majority of pledged delegates last night, the debate with McCain will become even more focused. And Israel, Palestine and Iran will likely be crucial topics in the weeks ahead.

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/21/2008 - 02:07 pm.

    Obama may be somewhat wrong about Iran, but McCain is Bush/Cheney/Lieberman/Hagee “Let’s invade that evil country now because it MIGHT develop nuclear weapons at some time in the future and because its figurehead of a prez does not like Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians.” McCain et al., in other words, want to carry out a pre-emptive strike against another country that is no real threat to us or to Israel. Obama would not be so reckless with American or Iranian lives. He would talk, although he seems to believe some of the current propaganda.

    I would recommend to Obama that he read some of the on-line journalists who debunk much of the Bush/Cheney propaganda about Iran: (1) Gareth Porter, http://www.ipsnews.net, articles on the false accusation that Iran is funneling weapons into Iraq with which “to kill Americans.” Iraq has been making its own IEDs for several years. (2) The February 24 IAEA article concerning their recent report noting that Iraq does NOT have a weapons development program, but that they would monitor its development of the peaceful development of nuclear energy. (3) Ned Parker’s July 15 article reporting that it is not Iraqis but Saudis who are the largest of foreign fighters and foreign suicide bombers. (4) Seymour Hersh’s March 2007 article in The New Yorker in which he notes that Cheney is having all intel on Iraq routed through his office, as he did that on Iraq in 2002-2003.

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