A worthy Obama-McCain clash

Both aren't consistent on talking with US enemies. But then, that isn't the real issue.

At last. The largely character-driven race for the White House has a full-throated policy dispute, this one between John McCain and Barack Obama: Should a president talk to terrorists or terror-backing states? Americans may be scratching their heads, however, as to exactly where these candidates stand on this primal security issue.

So far, the dispute consists mainly of sound bites, even though it isn't rhetorical. Israel, for example, admitted Wednesday it is in talks with Syria. And that comes despite US objections and despite Syria's support of two groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, that purposely shower rockets on Israeli civilians.

And strangely, Israel's announcement came a week after President Bush told Israeli lawmakers that anyone who negotiates with "terrorists and radicals" has fallen for the same "false comfort of appeasement" as did Neville Chamberlain in 1938 with Hitler.

But lest anyone think Israel has gone wobbly on terror, its talks with archfoe Syria were in process months ago when Israeli jets destroyed a secret nuclear plant in Syria. Israel also attacks Hamas fighters in Gaza even as it negotiates (through Egypt) for a truce.

Israel's example of talking softly and carrying a big stick may well serve this US campaign debate.

Democrats have fallen for the old trap of tagging Republicans as warmongers in claiming to refuse talks with enemies while the GOP cries "appeaser!" at Mr. Obama for suggesting he would negotiate "without preconditions" with the leaders of Iran, Cuba, etc.

Both Obama and Mr. McCain are being oversimplistic, exposing contradictions in their views. McCain says he would refuse to talk with Hamas even though two years ago he said "sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them." Obama calls for "engaged diplomacy" with US enemies but condemns Jimmy Carter's talks with Hamas.

Obama says he would talk with Iran's leader, but then his advisers say low-level talks must come first and with conditions. McCain rules out presidential talks with Iran but supports the low-level talks with Iran about Iraqi security as well as US payments to Iraq's Sunni terrorists to get them to switch sides.

Let's sort this all out.

Talking with terror-supporting states runs the risk of bestowing legitimacy on them and giving them time to gain strength. Such talks can lower US guard to the threat and undercut the implied US military threat that can force concessions. And to enter talks requires the US first know what it is willing to give away and the red lines that can't be crossed. Obama must address such points.

But talks can elicit new information about an enemy's deep concerns and weaknesses, giving the US an advantage. They reduce the image of the US as arrogant and a bully, and perhaps display a respect that softens the enemy's stance and saps its anti-US mystique. McCain needs to address those points.

This debate over talks as means must eventually give way to a deeper debate about the ends, or defining the threat of militant Islam. Can the US contain it and coexist with it? Or must it be eliminated if radicals are bent on destroying the US?

Once the candidates engage with each other on that issue, their debate on conditions for diplomacy may be more easily negotiable.

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