By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008
WATERTOWN, S.D., May 16 -- Sen. Barack Obama pushed back Friday against President Bush's implicit criticism of his approach to foreign policy, condemning his administration for not capturing Osama bin Laden and blaming its Iraq war policy for strengthening and emboldening Iran.
An animated Obama, cheered on by a crowd gathered on the floor of a livestock arena, said he would be delighted if the presidential race turned into a conversation about which party is better suited to guide the nation's foreign policy.
"If George Bush and John McCain want to have a debate about protecting the United States of America, that is a debate that I'm happy to have anytime, anyplace, and that is a debate I will win because George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for," the Democratic front-runner said.
After weeks of discussion about how to address rising gasoline prices and the nation's souring economy, the campaign resumed its focus on the Iraq war and the fragile state of the Middle East. Obama's speech triggered a day-long foreign policy exchange between him and McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's challenger for the Democratic nomination, was left largely on the sidelines.
Obama used a speech that was otherwise focused on rural issues to respond to Bush's comments to the Israeli Knesset on Thursday. The president said that "some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." He went on to compare a willingness to meet with "terrorists and radicals" to the pre-World War II "appeasement" of Nazi Germany.
Presidential counselor Ed Gillespie said Friday that Bush's remarks on appeasement were not a reference to Obama, and he suggested that White House aides were surprised by Democrats' reaction.
"We did not anticipate that it would be taken that way, because it's kind of hard to take it that way if you look at the actual words of the president's remarks," Gillespie told reporters aboard Air Force One as it traveled from Israel to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
He said White House aides expected that some might interpret the remarks as "a rebuke" of former president Jimmy Carter, who recently met with leaders of Hamas, but Gillespie said the comments were not meant to single out Carter, either. Bush's remarks were "consistent with what he has said in the past relative to dealing with groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaeda, relative to standing by Israel, relative to concerns about Iran developing the prospect of a nuclear weapon," Gillespie said.
At a news conference later Friday, Obama called it "disingenuous" to assert that he was not the clear target of the president's comments. Obama then used the exchange to link Bush's foreign policy record to McCain's stance toward the Middle East, and to outline the ways his own approach to the world's most vexing problems would differ from those of the current administration.
With former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) looking on and a John Deere tractor parked nearby, Obama launched into a blunt critique of Bush's foreign policy record. His list of grievances included a war fought on the premise of weapons of mass destruction that were never found, the failure to capture bin Laden and turning Iran into the "greatest beneficiary" of the Iraq war.
He said McCain will "need to answer" for a strengthened al-Qaeda leadership, Hamas's control of the Gaza Strip, and Iran's ability to fund Hezbollah and pose "the greatest threat to America and Israel and the Middle East in a generation."
"That's the Bush-McCain record on protecting this country," Obama said. "Those are the failed policies that John McCain wants to double down on."
In a later appearance, Obama added that he is "puzzled" that the concept of meeting with controversial foreign leaders is a point of debate "when this has been the history of U.S. diplomacy until very recently."
He pointed to President John F. Kennedy's meetings with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev when the United States and Russia were on the brink of nuclear war, and to President Richard M. Nixon's meeting with China's Mao Zedong, "with the knowledge that Mao had exterminated millions of people."
At an appearance in Louisville before the National Rifle Association's annual meeting, McCain questioned why Obama would ever consider meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"I have some news for Senator Obama: Talking, not even with soaring rhetoric, in unconditional meetings with the man who calls Israel a 'stinking corpse' and arms terrorists who kill Americans will not convince Iran to give up its nuclear program. It is reckless to suggest that unconditional meetings will advance our interests," McCain said.
"It would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don't have enemies. But that is not the world we live in, and until Senator Obama understands that reality, the American people have every reason to doubt whether he has the strength, judgment and determination to keep us safe," he added.
Clinton spent Friday campaigning in Oregon ahead of primaries there and in Kentucky on Tuesday, and her team put out a new ad in the state that takes on one of her favorite punching bags: Washington pundits. While footage that includes pictures of Tim Russert, George Stephanopoulos and Chris Matthews rolls by, a narrator declares: "In Washington, they talk about who's up and who's down. In Oregon, we care about what's right and what's wrong."
And as McCain and Obama sparred, Clinton took aim at Bush and Republicans.
"On the face of it, and especially in light of his failures in foreign policy, this is the kind of statement that has no place in any presidential address. And certainly to use an important moment like the 60th anniversary celebration of Israel to make a political point seems terribly misplaced," she told reporters Thursday night, according to ABC News. "Unfortunately, this is what we've come to expect from President Bush, who has refused to change course in Iraq, neglected Afghanistan and failed to provide leadership on the range of important issues that face our country and the world."
Reflecting the softer rhetoric she has been using when referring to the likely Democratic nominee in recent days, she added: "I have differences with Senator Obama on certain foreign policy matters, but I think we are united in our opposition to the Bush policies and to the continuation of those policies by Senator McCain. And no amount of outrageous analogies or claims for victory are going to sugarcoat what has been a dismal record by this administration and their allies in the Congress."
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., Michael D. Shear and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.