Obama Lashes Back At Bush, McCain

Barack Obama
CBS
Barack Obama rebuked Republican rival John McCain and President Bush for "dishonest, divisive" attacks in hinting that the Democratic presidential candidate would appease terrorists, staunchly defending his national security credentials for the general election campaign.

Obama responded Friday to Mr. Bush's speech Thursday to the Israeli Knesset. The president referred to the leader of Iran, who has called for the destruction of the U.S. ally, and then said some seem to believe that we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals - comments Obama and Democrats said were directed at them. McCain subsequently said Obama must explain why he wants to talk with rogue leaders.

"I'm a strong believer in civility and I'm a strong believer in a bipartisan foreign policy, but that cause is not served with dishonest, divisive attacks of the sort that we've seen out of George Bush and John McCain over the last couple days," Obama told about 2,000 voters at a town hall-style meeting in a livestock barn.

Obama said McCain had a "naive and irresponsible belief that tough talk from Washington will somehow cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism."

"It was one of the most pugnacious speeches Barack Obama has ever given," said CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.

During his swing through South Dakota, the Democratic front-runner said he had intended to focus on rural issues, but felt compelled to respond to the criticism from Mr. Bush and McCain.

"They aren't telling you the truth. They are trying to fool you and scare you because they can't win a foreign policy debate on the merits," said Obama. "But it's not going to work. Not this time, not this year."

Mr. Bush did not mention Obama by name in his speech, but Obama and other Democrats said the implication was clear.

"That's exactly the kind of appalling attack that's divided our country and that alienates us from the world," Obama said. He vowed to turn the foreign policy debate back against both Mr. Bush and McCain, rejecting the notion that Democrats critical of the war in Iraq are vulnerable to charges of being soft on terrorism.

"If they want a debate about protecting the United States of America, that's a debate I'm ready to win because George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for," Obama said. He blamed Bush's policies for enhancing the strength of terrorist groups such as Hamas and "the fact that al Qaeda's leadership is stronger than ever because we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan," among other failings.

The Illinois senator also said that he has stated "over and over again that I will not negotiate with terrorists like Hamas."

Later, at a news conference, Obama said he was offended by Mr. Bush's comments and argued that Republican and Democratic presidents, such as John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, had engaged in direct talks with U.S. foes.

"There is a strong bipartisan tradition of engaging in that kind of diplomacy," Obama told reporters.

McCain agreed, at least, that there were huge differences between himself and Obama on foreign policy, and said he'd be happy to let the American people decide who was right.

"It would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don't have enemies. But that's 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," McCain said in a speech to the National Rifle Association in Louisville, Ky.

McCain rejected the naive comment, saying Obama should have known better, and added: "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. It is reckless to suggest that unconditional neetings will advance our interests."

McCan's campaign also responded with a statement which called Obama's speech a "hysterical diatribe."

"It was remarkable to see Barack Obama's hysterical diatribe in response to a speech in which his name wasn't even mentioned," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds. "These are serious issues that deserve a serious debate, not the same tired partisan rants we heard today from Senator Obama."

Other Democrats accused McCain of hypocrisy Friday, saying the certain GOP presidential nominee had previously been willing to negotiate with the militant Palestian group Hamas.

In Charleston, W.Va., speaking before Obama's speech, McCain told reporters: "I made it very clear, at that time, before and after, that we will not negotiate with terrorist organizations, that Hamas would have to abandon their terrorism, their advocacy to the extermination of the state of Israel, and be willing to negotiate in a way that recognizes the right of the state of Israel and abandons their terrorist position and advocacy."

McCain contended that Obama wants to "sit down and negotiate with a government exporting most lethal devices used against soldiers. He wants to sit down face-to-face with a government that is very clear about developing nuclear weapons. ... They are sponsors of terrorist organizations. That's a huge difference in my opinion. And I'll let the American people decide whether that's a significant difference or not. I believe it is."

In an op-ed published Friday in The Washington Post, former Clinton State Department official James Rubin said that McCain, responding to a question in a television interview two years ago about whether U.S. diplomats should be working with the Hamas government in Gaza, said:

"They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy toward Hamas because of their dedication to violence and the things that they not only espouse but practice, so ... But it's a new reality in the Middle East. I think the lesson is people want security and a decent life and decent future, that they want democracy. Fatah was not giving them that."

Rubin, who interviewed McCain for the British network Sky News, said McCain is "guilty of hypocrisy" and accused him of "smearing" Obama.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., noted in an interview with CNN Friday that the Bush administration has negotiated with rogue leaders in North Korea and Libya.

"This is pure hypocrisy, but the worst part about it is, think how it falls on the ears in capitals of Europe and the rest of the world and Toyko when the president of the United States says under no condition will we talk to anybody like that, and John McCain, the nominee for the Republican Party, who may very well be president of the United States, is saying the same thing," Biden said.

Mr. Bush's speech at Israel's Knesset spoke of the president of Iran, who has called for the destruction of the U.S. ally. Then, the president said: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."

"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," Mr. Bush added.

The White House denied Mr. Bush had targeted Obama, who said the Republican commander in chief's intent was obvious.

"It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence to launch a false political attack," Obama said in a statement his aides distributed on Thursday. "George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and 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.

Hillary Rodham Clinton called Mr. Bush's original comments "offensive and outrageous, especially in light of his failures in foreign policy."

"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." Clinton has criticized Obama in the past for his pledge to meet with prominent adversaries of the United States without precondition.