The quickest way to understand the emerging foreign-policy debate between John McCain and Barack Obama is to look at the unpopular world leader each is trying to turn into the other's running mate. McCain has picked Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Obama, and Obama has selected George W. Bush for McCain.
Ahmadinejad recently called the Jewish state a "stinking corpse," which gave McCain new cause to question Obama's oft-stated position that he would negotiate with the Iranian president under the right conditions. "Why does Barack Obama want to sit down with a state sponsor of terrorism?" McCain asked. "What does he want to talk about with Ahmadinejad, who said that Israel is a stinking corpse? Who said that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, who is sending the most explosive devices into Iraq killing Americans? What does he want to talk about?"
On the stump, Obama has regularly sought to link McCain to Bush in a similar way. "While the Bush-Cheney ticket won't be up for re-election," he says in a typical remark, "the Bush-Cheney policies will, because John McCain is running for four more years of the same approach that has failed the American people."
By pivoting from the economy to foreign affairs, each candidate thinks he has something to gain in the battle of temperaments. McCain looks to paint Obama as naive, appealing to the sentiment of voters who give the Republican higher marks on experience and knowledge of world affairs. As a recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows, McCain leads Obama by more than 40 points on those attributes. Raising the specter of Ahmadinejad is also an effort to exploit Obama's weakness with Jewish voters, a bloc with whom Obama has recently been at pains to improve his image.
For Obama, there's no better way to argue that McCain represents a third Bush term than to talk about the unpopular Iraq war and his saber-rattling about Iran. This excites Obama's base, which, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, lists the Iraq war as its greatest concern—above even the economy. And it also helps him push McCain back into the arms of the president with independents who might be susceptible to seeing him as distinct from Bush.
When asked to respond to McCain's charge about Ahmadinejad, one of Obama's senior advisers simply forwarded a comment by Defense Secretary Robert Gates from today's Washington Post. "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage," said Gates, "and then sit down and talk with them. If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us."
That's Obama position, articulated by Bush's defense secretary, say his aides. McCain's Manichean view of negotiations, on the other hand, is the same one that bogged down the United States in the Middle East and squandered our international prestige. McCain doesn't just share Bush's policy positions on foreign affairs, goes this line of accusation—he shares his reckless neoconservative mindset. Addressing McCain and Bush's remarks directly on Friday in a press conference, Obama said, "I was offended by what is a continuation of a strategy from this White House—now mimicked by Senator McCain—that replaces strategy and analyses and smart policy with bombast exaggerations and fear mongering."
As if on cue, Bush locked arms with McCain in critiquing those who promote negotiations with our enemies. Speaking in Israel, Bush made what many saw as a veiled reference to Obama in evoking the appeasers of the Nazis before World War II. "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," said Bush. "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, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
The reference to appeasement drew universal outrage from the Democratic foreign-policy establishment. Senate foreign-relations committee Chairman Joe Biden called it "bullshit." Though Bush never mentioned Obama, the senator knew it wouldn't hurt to take offense. "The president's extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel," he said.
The benefit of the boogeyman strategy for both Obama and McCain is that it allows each to tie his opponent to a highly unpopular man who can be counted on to regularly say unpopular things. When Ahmadinejad produces one of his outbursts, McCain will raise the alarm about Obama's odd, accommodating, touchy-feely diplomacy. How could he even think about meeting with such an evil character? When Bush paints his ideological opponents as appeasers, or otherwise colors in black and white only, Obama gets a chance to argue that McCain shares the rigidity that led Bush and his team to rush into war on faulty evidence.
The similarities in the guilt-by-association strategies go only so far, obviously. Obama is nowhere near Ahmadinejad, and on many issues McCain is quite close to Bush. That should make it easy for Obama to wriggle free, whereas the pictures of McCain hugging Bush will be omnipresent and harder to escape. Whether that's true depends on how well the candidate being drummed by this attack is able to speak for himself.