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McCain in the Mud

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In 2000, I boarded John McCain's campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, and, in a metaphorical sense, never got off. Here, truly, was something new under the political sun -- a politician who bristled with integrity and seemed to have nothing to hide. I continue to admire McCain for those and other reasons, but the bus I once rode has gone wobbly. Recently, it veered into the mud.

I have in mind McCain's charge that Barack Obama is the favored presidential candidate of Hamas. The citation for this remark is the statement of Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas political adviser, who said, "We like Mr. Obama, and we hope that he will win the election." Yousef likened Obama to John F. Kennedy and said that Obama "has a vision to change America" and with it the world. Yousef apparently got so carried away that he forgot that Obama has repeatedly called Hamas a "terrorist organization."

McCain seems to have forgotten that, too. His campaign has sent out an e-mail showing how guilt by association really works. "Barack Obama's foreign policy plans have even won him praise from Hamas leaders," it said. The message went on to claim that Obama's foreign policy positions have earned him "kind words" from Hamas.

Never mind that this was the sort of campaigning that McCain vowed to eschew. More to the point is what McCain said in his own defense. Not only was Yousef's praise of Obama "a legitimate point of discussion," he said, but everyone should understand that McCain himself will be "Hamas's worst nightmare." This aspect of McCain is my worst nightmare.

Just a day before McCain made that statement, Cindy McCain appeared on the "Today" show and responded to questions about her husband's age. She described a veritable Energizer Bunny who, among other things, plans to hike the Grand Canyon this summer. "He's just a ball of fire," she said.

At 71, McCain would be the oldest man ever elected president, and so age has to be a consideration. My concern for the moment, though, is not McCain's physical age but his intellectual age -- his willingness to revise his views and grapple with the new. Thus far, he has shown scant desire to do any of that.

He's been running around the country costumed as a George W. Bush conservative. McCain's tax plan is a joke, and his foreign policy is frightening.

When McCain says that he would be Hamas's worst nightmare, what in the world is he talking about? Almost on a daily basis, Hamas launches rockets into southern Israel, occasionally killing some poor soul. The latest victim was a woman of about 70 who was killed yesterday. Israel usually retaliates, and Palestinians -- some of them just as innocent as the Israeli victim -- are killed. You would think that Israel would be Hamas's worst nightmare, but aside from the occasional -- and fruitless -- retaliatory raid, it cannot figure out how to stop Hamas's deadly activities. What would McCain do that Israel has not?

McCain supports the Iraq war. But Iraq is still a mess. Iran has gained influence there and elsewhere in the region. Syria and Iran together have made Hezbollah, another terrorist organization, an important, if not dominant, factor in Lebanon. What would McCain do about this? Would he bomb Hezbollah? Israel has already done that. Would he occupy southern Lebanon? Israel has done that, too. Has he noticed that all this military force has accomplished next to nothing? What are the particulars of the nightmare he has in mind for a good chunk of the Middle East?

I hate to say it, but Yousef has a point. The Middle East desperately needs supple minds that are not mired in the past. I look at Gaza and don't know what to do. I have supported Israel in its policies there, but I have to admit that nothing has been gained from the non-recognition of Hamas. War doesn't work. Isolation doesn't work. For Israel, leaving Gaza didn't work, and, surely, McCain's threat to Hamas will not give it a headache -- a belly laugh is more like it.

The most admirable of McCain's qualities -- his life story, his integrity -- make him particularly well suited to accomplish the next president's primary task, restoring the American people's trust in their government. But ideas matter, and on the Middle East, McCain not only has little to say that is interesting but, in his swipe at Obama, a distinctly ugly way of saying it.

cohenr@washpost.com


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