By Glenn Kessler and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Sen. John McCain stepped up his assault on Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials at a rally in Miami yesterday, criticizing Obama's willingness to talk to Cuban President Ra¿l Castro and other hostile foreign leaders without preconditions. But McCain's argument was undercut when a 2006 video emerged of former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a prominent McCain supporter, saying that "talking to an enemy is not in my view appeasement."
The furious exchanges between the presidential candidates were prompted by President Bush's statement to the Israeli parliament last week that negotiating with "terrorists and radicals" such as Iran embodied "the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history." But the dispute underscores an emerging theme on the campaign trail, with McCain (R-Ariz.) stressing his national security credentials and painting Obama as weak and inexperienced, and with Obama (D-Ill.) pushing a message of change and seeking to tar McCain as a Bush clone.
On Monday, McCain told members of the National Restaurant Association that Obama fails to understand "basic realities of international relations." McCain said Obama's willingness to talk with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions during his first year as president would only embolden "an implacable foe of the United States."
Yesterday, speaking to a Cuban American audience, McCain singled out Obama's willingness to meet Castro. "These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators: There is no need to undertake fundamental reforms; they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy," McCain said. "I believe we should give hope to the Cuban people, not to the Castro regime."
McCain attacked Obama's qualifications to be commander in chief, telling reporters on his campaign bus yesterday, "There's a huge difference there, and it's got to do with experience, knowledge and judgment -- none of which Senator Obama has."
McCain senior strategist Steve Schmidt said that yesterday's debate helps frame one of the central questions Americans will ask during the general election: "Which candidate is best positioned to secure the peace for the next generation?"
"John McCain is ready to be commander in chief. Barack Obama is not, because of his inexperience and poor judgment," Schmidt said. "Inexperience and poor judgment in the president of the United States makes the world a more dangerous place."
Obama, meanwhile, has stuck to his position that the president should be willing to talk with enemies of the United States as part of a return to a more open and ambitious use of diplomacy, though last week he clarified that there would be lower-level contacts and "preparation" before any presidential meeting. On the campaign trail, Obama cites President Richard M. Nixon's opening of U.S. relations with China and President Ronald Reagan's negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as examples he would emulate.
Obama also frequently quotes President John F. Kennedy's position during the escalating nuclear arms race that the United States should be willing to meet with its adversaries: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate," Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address.
Obama's strategists think that his position signals not only change but also a return to vigorous diplomacy, which is why Obama invokes past presidents. The strategists argue that the more McCain attacks Obama on this issue, the more McCain compromises his reputation for independence. "Barack Obama will use all aspects of American power to restore our security and standing, including the kind of direct diplomacy that worked for presidents from Kennedy to Reagan," spokesman Hari Sevugan said.
In a speech in Billings, Mont., on Monday, Obama accused McCain of "using the same George Bush textbook" in which "anything but their failed cowboy diplomacy is called appeasement." Obama tried to turn McCain's argument on its head, saying setting preconditions is "not a strategy; it's naive, wishful thinking. I'm not afraid we'll lose some propaganda fight with a dictator. It's time to win those battles, because we've watched George Bush lose them year after year after year."
Fred I. Greenstein, a scholar of the presidency at Princeton University, said that history tended to back Obama's stance. Ticking off a series of presidential meetings with fierce adversaries since Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, particularly with Soviet leaders, Greenstein asked, "When do presidents not meet with adversaries?"
Polling suggests that Obama's position might resonate with voters. A November 2006 poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 75 percent of Americans think that the United States should deal with Iran by trying to build better relations, though this poll and others have found large gaps between Democrats and Republicans, with Republicans more likely to advocate pressure over negotiation.
The Obama campaign also pointed to previous statements from prominent Republicans such as former secretaries of state Colin L. Powell and Henry Kissinger, as well as Sens. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), in making the case for direct talks with Iran.
Moreover, in an Oct. 6, 2006, interview on Fox News's "Hannity & Colmes" that began circulating on the Internet this week, Baker dismissed the notion that talking with enemies -- even state sponsors of terrorism -- is any sort of appeasement.
"You don't just talk to your friends; you talk to your enemies, as well," an animated Baker said. "Diplomacy involves talking to your enemies. You don't reward your enemies necessarily by talking to them if you are tough and you know what you are doing. You don't appease them. Talking to an enemy is not, in my view, appeasement."
Baker did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked about Baker's comments, McCain said that as secretary of state, Baker talked only with adversaries who seemed open to changing their tactics. "When Secretary Baker was secretary of state, they didn't talk to Castro. They had a very strict position on whether to negotiate with him or not," McCain said.
Eilperin reported from Miami. Staff writer Peter Slevin in Chicago contributed to this report.