Boost for Obama?

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Sometimes the tit-for-tat exchanges of outrage between political candidates make me wonder: Are they for real? Or, like the trash-talking between professional wrestlers matches on television, are they just meant to build up the box office take?

Consider, for example, how President Bush in a speech to the Israeli Knesset compared those who seek talks with Iran and radical Islamic groups to those who thought they could buy peace from the Nazis before World War II. “We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement,” Mr. Bush said.

Those were heard as fighting words by Sen. Barack Obama. Even though the Democratic presidential front-runner was not mentioned by name, he has been saying since last July that he is willing to talk to Iran’s leaders without preconditions during his first year in office.

Appeasement? There’s a huge difference between simply holding talks and appeasement. Mr. Obama has said he would tell Iran to stop threatening Israel, developing nuclear weapons, funding terrorist groups like Hamas and stirring up deadly mischief inside Iraq. If Iran didn’t agree, Mr. Obama says, he would proceed with sanctions.

Mr. Obama had never advocated talks with terrorist groups like Hamas or called for any giveaways in the way the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany in the 1930s.

Still, Mr. Bush’s own spokespeople say the president wasn’t talking about Mr. Obama. In fact, as some of Mr. Bush’s allies insist, he could have been talking about former President Jimmy Carter, who has been quite outspoken in his insistence that Israel negotiate with Hamas.

Nevertheless the speed with which Mr. Obama responded to Mr. Bush’s Knesset comments speaks volumes. After his prolonged primary campaigns, Mr. Obama is itching to lock horns with President Bush, especially if it makes the point that electing Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, will be a “third Bush term.”

“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,” Mr. Obama said in a statement released by the campaign.

And Mr. McCain could not help but lash back Monday at Mr. Obama, saying the Illinois senator’s willingness to talk with Iran reveals “inexperience and reckless judgment.” Mr. McCain said: “It is likely such a meeting would …. fail to persuade [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] to abandon Iran’s nuclear ambition, its support of terrorists and commitment to Israel’s extinction.”

That gave Mr. Obama the perfect opportunity to fire back that Mr. McCain was mimicking the Bush administration policies in which “anything but their failed cowboy diplomacy is called appeasement.”

“For all their tough talk, one thing you have to ask yourself is ‘What are McCain and Bush afraid of?’ ” Mr. Obama said in Billings, Mont. “I’m not afraid we’ll lose some propaganda fight with a dictator. It’s time to win those battles, because we’ve watched George Bush lose them year after year after year.”

Welcome to the beginnings of the general election campaign. There’s a genuine policy debate going on in this back-and-forth. There’s some high-stakes politicking going on, too.

With his Arab-Israeli peace process having all the appearances of being dead in the water, Mr. Bush relishes an opportunity to retake the center of the world stage, especially with a controversial speech to a very friendly audience at the Knesset.

But, at a time when polls show Mr. Bush’s disapproval ratings dragging down the ticket and leading congressional Republicans fretting about their tarnished “brand,” Mr. McCain’s chances in the general election may hinge on how well he can distance himself from the sitting president. Mr. Bush could be more of a burden to Mr. McCain in this election year than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Mr. Obama’s retired and very controversial pastor, has been to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Bush has a hard of a time staying out of this fray as Bill Clinton has in staying out of the way of the candidacy of his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton: This election will be viewed as a referendum on the Bush presidency as much as Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is viewed as a referendum on how much “Clinton fatigue” the public is suffering.

But this back-and-forth over foreign policy is a risky game for Mr. Obama, too. It puts him in the arena of national security debates, where Republicans traditionally have an advantage over Democrats — especially war heroes like Mr. McCain, a former Vietnam POW.

Yet the campaign must deal with foreign policy sooner or later. For Mr. Obama, it’s best to do it now, with months to go before the election, especially when President Bush so willingly offers up the opportunity.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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