Boo, says John McCain. And boo to you, too, says Barack Obama. The opening skirmishes on national security suggest we are in for some bruising bare-knuckle politics that will advertise division and uncertainty to our enemies and confuse our friends.
It must delight the nuclear plotters in Iran to know that while the candidates caricature each other, thousands of centrifuges keep churning enriched uranium, and there's no concerted drive with the Europeans to convince the holdouts, Russia and China, of the urgency.
If the United States is divided, what kind of lead can it give?
In light of the shocking May 26 International Atomic Energy Agency exposé of Iran's lies, it surely should be a top priority to agree on an Iranian policy on which America could speak with one voice. Newt Gingrich has made the case for a naval blockade to squeeze the Iranian economy, the neuralgic spot for the dictatorship facing unrest among its divergent populations. Sen. Charles Schumer now advocates sacrificing NATO's antimissile system as the price of getting Vladimir Putin's Russia on our side for all-round tougher sanctions. Sen. John Kerry represents the softly-softly approach that Obama espouses. Kerry believes the stalemate can be broken by talk and proposes "economic incentives, energy assistance, diplomatic normalization, or a noninvasion guarantee." If that approach fails—and judging by past reaction, it will—he argues that we will have gained "the moral high ground." To do what?
The discussion now is staged only sound bite to sound bite between the extremes. Bomb or talk? You're Neville Chamberlain, and I'm Winston Churchill. (And who is Franklin Roosevelt, who stood aside until it was past midnight?)
Bipartisanship. Iran is the pressing issue—but in Iraq and in Lebanon, those making a brave stand against the radicals cannot know whether come next January, we'll still stand by them or be gone for good.
It need not be like this. I recall with nostalgia the days of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, when a bipartisan foreign policy served so well in the Cold War. "Politics should stop at the water's edge," said the old-time isolationist Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who surprised the party by supporting the United Nations. Republicans in Congress were hostile to Truman's domestic initiatives, but they backed his unprecedented creation of the enduring alliance with western Europe through the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the Korean War. And then congressional Democrats backed Eisenhower.
My déjà vu arose from the rare event of a single joint statement from the then three presidential aspirants—McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Obama. It was salutary that they should tell the genocidal government in Sudan and its proxies, who've killed 200,000, that they're making a huge mistake if they think they will benefit by running out the clock on the Bush administration. "If peace and security for the people of Sudan are not in place when one of us is inaugurated president on Jan. 20, 2009, we pledge that the next administration will pursue these goals with unstinting resolve." That's the stuff!
McCain and Obama could make a start on a bipartisan foreign policy by not strenuously misrepresenting each other on the contentious issues of Iraq and Iran. Obama certainly revealed his immaturity by saying that he'd talk without conditions to our enemies—a folly, as Kennedy learned in Vienna in 1961 in his first face-to-face with Nikita Khrushchev. He went unprepared into the lion's den, and when the lion roared, Kennedy gave such a good impersonation of a mouse it dangerously emboldened Khrushchev. But Obama seems to have realized his error, and McCain should stop beating that horse.
Obama, for his part, should stick to his pledge not to play politics as usual: His theme that the maverick McCain is just George W. Bush II is cheap. McCain has never bought into truculent unilateralism. He's known and respected in the world. The invasion of Iraq would have succeeded earlier at less grievous cost if Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had listened to his complaints of insufficient troops. And he has been right about the surge, and Obama wrong. It's working. Furthermore, it's a distortion of what McCain actually said to suggest we'd still be fighting there for 100 years.