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Worldviews in Need of Merger

By Richard Cohen

Chris Matthews, in a look of revelation not seen since the late DeMille did biblical epics, said the other day that he is beginning to think a Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton ticket makes sense. Maybe so. But I have an even better ticket in mind: Obama-McCain. That way we might get a sensible foreign policy.

As it is now, the two probable presidential nominees have outlined a foreign policy that sort of goes like this: Obama will talk to anyone while John McCain will talk to no one. I would guess that both would love to amend their positions but they are both mortally afraid of appearing reasonable. Obama represents a constituency which holds that much of the world's troubles are caused by the United States and can be rectified by a president who is alert to cultural nuance and can be a keen listener. This is the world according to Oprah Winfrey.

McCain, on the other hand, is seeking the support of a constituency that thinks the U.S. is always the innocent party and would show weakness by even acknowledging the existence of, not to mention the occasional justifiable grievance of, certain entities -- particularly Hamas, Hezbollah and the entire country of Iran. This is the world according to an ostrich.

I attribute Obama's predicament to inexperience and a certain worrisome naivete. When he said he would personally negotiate with Iran (if he were president), he might not have realized exactly what he was saying.

McCain, though, knows exactly what he himself is saying -- and how wrong he is -- because he once said pretty close to the opposite. In 2006, McCain was interviewed by James P. Rubin, a former Clinton administration official then slumming as a journalist. Rubin asked McCain if American diplomats should continue to work with the Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip if -- as had just become the case -- "Hamas is now in charge." McCain essentially said yes.

"They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them," he told Rubin. "It's a new reality in the Middle East." I have truncated McCain's quote, but it is -- I avow and attest -- an accurate reflection of what he said.

After Rubin recently recounted his McCain interview in a Washington Post op-ed piece, the McCain camp went berserk. It called Rubin a liar and said he had taken the quote out of context. In one sense, he had: Back in 2006, McCain was not yet an official presidential candidate. Now he is.

McCain's campaign then supplied a piece of the interview that Rubin had left out. Here it is: "I think part of the relationship is going to be dictated by how Hamas acts, not how the United State acts." Well, duh. Not only is that obvious, it materially changes nothing. What's missing is a McCain oath to never, but never talk to Hamas until it is, in essence, no longer Hamas. It's clear that McCain was once guilty of sensible flexibility. Until he secures his GOP base, this could be dangerous. Someone could mistake him for a moderate.

As for Obama, he's coming off as McCain's mirror opposite -- just dying to talk to anyone McCain won't. This, too, is a mistake because when a president sits down with an antagonistic foreign leader, it can only be to settle what has already been settled. Negotiations can be a dangerous business, especially when one negotiator has a free and rambunctious press to goad him into compromises while the other is covered by suitably intimidated sycophants.

Campaigns tend to make idiots out of really smart people. Already Hillary Clinton has been soiled by her fantasy bravery in Bosnia, Obama stood by for too long while his minister made a fool out of him, and McCain, who wakes up every morning as decent a person as there is, calls someone a liar because he has been embarrassed by his own words. No one's looking good here.

But while Americans take campaign rhetoric with a grain of salt, foreign audiences -- including leaders -- tend to believe what they hear. They are now sizing up both McCain and Obama based on what they are saying. One sounds like an inflexible hard-liner and the other like a naif. What America really needs is to combine the two -- some moderation on McCain's part, some ugly realpolitik on Obama's. Either man could fill that role by himself. All it takes is a decent regard for when history says not to talk -- and when it says to listen.

cohenr@washpost.com

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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