Barack Obama on Friday accused George W. Bush and John McCain of trying to fool the US electorate by comparing advocates of talks with America’s adversaries to the “appeasers” of Nazi Germany.
By Edward Luce and Andrew Ward in Washington
Denying that he had ever recommended talks with Hamas, the extremist Palestinian group, Mr Obama pointed out that Mr McCain had in an interview two years ago called for such talks. He also pointed out that Bob Gates, the US defence secretary, had advocated talks with Iran.
“That’s the kind of hypocrisy that we have been seeing in our foreign policy, the kind of fear-mongering that has prevented us from actually making us safe,” said Mr Obama. “They are trying to fool you and scare you. . .and the reason is they cannot win a foreign policy debate on its merits. But it’s not going to work this time. Not this year.”
Speaking at the National Rifle Association, Mr McCain hit back harder on Friday, singling out Mr Obama’s repeated call for direct talks with Iran and the most incendiary remarks of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I have news for Senator Obama. Talking . . . in unconditional meetings with a man who calls Israel a stinking corpse and arms terrorists who kill Americans will not convince Iran to give up its nuclear programme,” said Mr McCain. “The American people have every reason to doubt whether he [Mr Obama] has the strength, judgment and determination to keep us safe.”
The exchange, a day after Mr Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset, united the Democratic party behind Mr Obama in what looked like the first full-scale salvo in a general election campaign.
Even Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to stay in the race until the Democratic primaries conclude on June 3, supported Mr Obama calling Mr Bush’s remarks “offensive and outrageous”. Joe Biden, the former Democratic contender, dubbed the Bush comments “bull****”.
The same choosing of sides occurred among Republicans, with former candidates Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney joining Mr Bush in support of Mr McCain. “This could be a defining moment in the general election,” said John Bolton, the former Bush administration official. “We have boiled down to the essence of what Mr Obama believes, which is that diplomacy is always the answer.”
Mr Obama’s rejoinder reflected his strategy of hitting back criticisms quickly and robustly. The Obama campaign’s approach contrasts with that of John Kerry in 2004, criticised for letting attacks to fester and come to define him.
“I am a strong believer in civility and in a bipartisan foreign policy but that cause is not served with dishonest, divisive attacks of the sort we have seen from George Bush and John McCain over the last couple of days,” said Mr Obama yesterday.