Friday, May 16, 2008

Bush, Obama clash over 'politics of fear'

White House hopeful Barack Obama has accused President George W Bush of tainting US foreign policy with the "politics of fear" after the US leader implied in Israel that Democrats would appease terrorists. President Bush's comments, in a speech to the Israeli parliament, ignited a fierce election-year row between the White House and the Illinois senator, in the president's most direct clash yet with Democrats vying to succeed him.

"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," Bush said, drawing parallels with 1930s accommodation of the Nazis. "We have an obligation to call this what it is - the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."

The White House denied the comments directly targeted Senator Obama, who has said he would be ready to hold direct talks with leaders of US foes including Iran and Syria, which the Bush administration has shunned. But an angry Senator Obama, who holds an overwhelming lead in his Democratic nominating contest against Hillary Clinton, swiftly hit back in a statement, as his campaign accused Bush of adopting "cowboy diplomacy."

"George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president's extraordinary politicisation of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel," Senator Obama said. "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." "Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power - including tough, principled, and direct diplomacy - to pressure countries like Iran and Syria."

Obama's intervention came as his campaign tries to shift the focus away from his climaxing nominating tussle with Clinton and towards a general-election showdown with Republican John McCain.

White House press secretary Dana Perino was asked whether President Bush had intended to refer directly to Obama. "I understand when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you - that is not always true and it is not true in this case," she said. Another Bush spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said "it is not specifically referring to any individual and doesn't exclude any individual".

Senator Obama said in a Democratic presidential debate last July that he would be willing to hold talks, without preconditions, with the leaders of top US foes including Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. In a subsequent debate in April, Obama renewed his offer for direct talks at a leaders' level with Tehran, saying the Islamic Republic should be pressed with "carrots and sticks" to end its nuclear program. But also said he would take no option off the table to stop Tehran from using or obtaining nuclear weapons.

The row overshadowed a major speech by Senator McCain, who for the first time laid out a timeline to end the Iraq war, arguing he would get most US troops home by 2013 if elected president. The Arizona senator said also that al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden would be captured or killed, and that the threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan would be greatly reduced by the end of his first term in the White House. "By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom," McCain said in Columbus, Ohio. "The Iraq war has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension," he said in his crystal ball speech.

Senator McCain's comments appeared to be an effort to neutralise an attack by Democrats who argue he is ready to fight a 100-year war in Iraq, as he limbers up his campaign for November's general election.


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