Like a pair of over-the-hill tag-team wrestlers, George W. Bush and John McCain probably thought the same old tricks that brought past opponents down would work like a charm this time, too. Addressing Israel’s Knesset, Bush clumsily inserted American politics into a ceremonial address marking the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s statehood, issuing a thinly veiled attack on Barack Obama for his willingness to negotiate with Iran and Syria. Bush invoked “Nazi tanks” rolling into Poland in 1939, adding, “We have an obligation to call this what it is–the false comfort of appeasement.”
McCain eagerly jumped in. “The President,” he said, “is exactly right.” With those five words–the President is exactly right–McCain abandoned all pretense that he intends to put some distance between his views and Bush’s and showed that he intends to turn his own Hundred Years’ War in Iraq and the broader Middle East into the centerpiece of this year’s election, with Bush–and his 28 percent approval rating–at his side. In the cheering section was John Bolton, the neoconservative hawk’s hawk, chortling that by raising the specter of Hitler and the Munich appeasers of 1938, Bush and McCain “may well have created a defining moment in the 2008 campaign.”
Precisely so. But not in the way that Bush, McCain and Bolton hoped. Rather than cringing–in the manner of, say, John Kerry in 2004–Obama fired back hard, accusing Bush and McCain of playing to “the politics of fear” and challenging them to debate foreign policy “any time, any place.” In this debate, Obama has vast support. Bush’s fanciful Ahmadinejad- equals-Hitler, Obama-equals-Neville-Chamberlain rhetoric drew scorn from editorial writers and analysts across the spectrum. Virtually the entire US foreign policy establishment, aside from a few neocon dead-enders, supports talking with Iran–including, notably, Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, who inconveniently said–two days before Bush’s speech– “We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage with respect to the Iranians and then sit down and talk with them.”
It remains to be seen to what extent American voters can be lured into buying yet another dose of the Bush-McCain snake oil. What worked in 2002, when the country was still in shock over 9/11, and in 2004, when the war in Iraq didn’t seem as hopeless and unending to many Americans, flopped spectacularly in 2006. And judging by almost every measure–polls, fundraising, voter registration and three successive Democratic wins in bright-red GOP Congressional districts this year–the politics of fear isn’t doing too well this time either.
Like Bush, McCain conflates Iran, Al Qaeda, Iraq’s competing militias, Hamas, Hezbollah, Saudi oil sheiks and the Taliban into one big, transcendently evil ball of Islamofascist wax. Perhaps it’s too much to expect voters to sort out the subtleties of Middle Eastern politics in the midst of an election campaign. But it shouldn’t be difficult for Obama to sell the common-sense idea that talking to your opponents abroad isn’t the same as giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Indeed, in his Iowa speech on the night he clinched a majority of pledged delegates, Obama alluded to the McCain/Bush “fear of tough and aggressive diplomacy that has left this country more isolated and less secure than at any time in recent history.”
At the same time, Obama can point out that the White House threw its own diplomacy into reverse by talking to Axis of Evil member North Korea; and that according to polls a majority of Israelis want to strike a diplomatic deal with Syria and negotiate with Hamas; and that leaving Iraq will finally allow Iraqis to solve their own problems.