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THE NATION | CAMPAIGN '08

Obama hits back at Bush, McCain

May 17, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi and Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writers

WATERTOWN, S.D. — In a day of intense verbal sparring, Sen. Barack Obama angrily accused President Bush and Sen. John McCain on Friday of strengthening America's enemies in the Middle East and relying on "fear-mongering" to silence critics of their policies.

Obama took them to task a day after Bush, in a speech to the Israeli parliament, took what Democrats saw as a swipe at Obama, criticizing those who call for negotiations with terrorists as agents of "appeasement" and citing the Nazi era.

"He accused me and other Democrats of wanting to negotiate with terrorists and said we were appeasers no different from people who appeased Adolf Hitler," Obama said at a rally that drew 2,100 to an agricultural arena in this small town.

"Now that's exactly the kind of appalling attack that's divided our country and that alienates us from the world."

A spokesman for McCain, whose jabs at the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination have become increasingly pointed, accused Obama of a "hysterical diatribe in response to a speech where his name wasn't even mentioned."

Obama's theme Friday was to have been rural affairs. Standing on a floor covered with hay and sawdust, he apologized for changing the subject and chided Bush, saying he had violated protocol by launching "a political attack targeted toward the domestic market in front of a foreign delegation."

The Illinois senator used the occasion to criticize Bush and McCain on foreign policy. He said that Iraq was once a counterweight to Iran's power in the Middle East but that since the 2003 invasion -- which McCain supported and Obama opposed -- Iran had gained influence in war-torn Iraq.

Obama also said the White House was to blame for Hamas' hold on Gaza.

Bush did not mention Obama in his Knesset speech. "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," the president said.

Obama laughed when told the White House had denied that the president was referring to him. "Who's this 'some' they're talking about?" he asked. "That's disingenuous."

In the afternoon, McCain repeated his frequent criticism of Obama's pledge to talk with the leaders of countries considered hostile to America. "Sen. Obama would meet unconditionally with some of the world's worst dictators and state sponsors of terrorists," McCain said at the National Rifle Assn.'s annual meeting in Louisville, Ky. "I would not add to the prestige of those who support violent extremists or seek to destroy our allies."

Obama defended his stance that he would meet, without preconditions, with leaders of countries like Iran and North Korea. He argued that previous presidents had sought out far more dangerous enemies -- such as President Kennedy meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Derek Chollet, a foreign policy advisor to former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, agreed with that tactic. "Obama is saying it makes sense to talk to enemies about the problems we have. The Bush administration negotiated with Libya to end Libya's nuclear program, and they took pride in it," said Chollet, who is with the Center for New American Society.

Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans have an advantage on foreign policy during wartime, but Obama said voters wouldn't buy into that in this election.

"The American people are going to look at the evidence and say, 'We don't get a sense this has been a wise foreign policy or a strong foreign policy or a tough foreign policy,' " Obama said.

"This has been a foreign policy that has revolved around a lot of bluster and very little performance."

Meanwhile, McCain's consistency on the issue of meeting with enemies was called into question Friday in a Washington Post essay.

James P. Rubin, a reporter who was an assistant secretary of State during the Clinton administration, wrote that he had interviewed McCain just after Hamas -- which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization -- won the Palestinian parliamentary elections. Asked whether the U.S. should work with Hamas, McCain replied: "They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them."

Late Friday, the McCain campaign disseminated a video of the interview, which included a qualification from McCain: "I think the United States should take a step back, see what they do when they form their government, see what their policies are, and see the ways that we can engage with them, and if there aren't any, there may be a hiatus."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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