From NBC's John Yang
President George W. Bush used his speech to the Israeli Knesset this morning to inject himself into the 2008 presidential race with a swipe at Barack Obama's call for diplomatic engagement with Iran.
First, he equated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Hamas, Hezbollah and Osama bin Laden. Then: "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement."
Obama responded in a written statement: "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. It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel. 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. George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the President's extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel."
Speaking on background, a senior administration official says the president's language to anyone -- the official specifically mentioned Obama and former President Jimmy Carter's suggestion that the U.S. talk to Hamas -- who has suggested engaging with rogue states or terrorist groups without first getting some leverage. The official said Defense Secretary Gates' comments yesterday, which NBC's Jim Miklaszeski reported on, referred to talks before there is some leverage.
On the record, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the president's comments do not represent a change in policy and was not a slam on Obama.
A rift in the administration?
Miklaszeski reports that yesterday, in a speech to retired U.S. diplomats that was closed to the media and off-camera, Gates suggesed that more Americans and others open UNOFFICIAL CONTACTS with Iran as a means to open meaningful dialogue with the Iranian government.
"My own view, just my personal view, would be we ought look for ways outside of government to oopen up the channels and get more of a flow of people back and forth."
Although Gates had advocated more government-to-government contact between the U.S. and Iran he acknowledged that was less likely now given the role Iran is allegedly playing in attacking U.S. forces in Iraq.
Gates also said the U.S. must be prepared to give Iran something in return for giving up it's nuclear ambitions. "We need to figure out a way to develop some leveral with respect to the Iranian and then sit down and talk with them. If there's going to be discussion then they need something too."
Pentagon officials insist Gates statements do not conflict with adminstration policy toward Iran, saying the U.S. is seeking a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuke problem.
A rallying cry for the 'right'?
Bush's remarks appear to be a reference to the late Sen. William Borah "who, on hearing of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, lamented: 'Lord, if only I could have talked with Hitler, all this might have been avoided.'"
An Investor's Business Daily editorial from Oct. 2007 says Obama's, the "Iraq Study Group's," the "L.A. Times'" and "columnist William Cohen's" suggestions on talking to Iran are "naivete" -- "exceeded perhaps only by the late Sen. William Borah who, on hearing of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, lamented: 'Lord, if only I could have talked with Hitler, all this might have been avoided.'"
"If only we had talked more with Saddam Hussein," it continues. "If only we had let sanctions work. If only we talk to Hezbollah, to Iran, to Syria. Someday let's not be saying: If only we had listened to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney."
The comments attributed to Borah have circulated the Web and become something of a rallying cry on the right it appears
Apparently, Rumsfeld also invoked this prior to 2006: "As James Taranto notes in his indispensable 'Best of the Web Today' column, the only American politician Rumsfeld mentioned was the late Sen. William Borah, who upon hearing of Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland sighed: 'Lord, if only I could have talked with Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' Borah was a Republican isolationist, so perhaps we can understand the aforementioned Democrats' indignation. As I say, they are exceptionally touchy."
A commenter on one blog wants to start "the William Edgar Borah Award. It's named after the Idaho Senator who upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland said "Lord, if I could only have talked with Hitler, all this might have been avoided." I think I'll use his statue at the Capitol as a model."
A line in the sand?
Otherwise, the theme of President Bush's day in Israel can be summed up as tyranny and oppression. He began the day at Masada, the ancient Negev Desert fortress where, facing defeat by the Romans in the early First Century, a group of nearly 1,000 Jewish rebels chose suicide over living as slaves. Later, at the Knesset, he spoke of combating what he called modern-day tyrants--Hamas, Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
"Citizens of Israel," he declared, "Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side."
He gave Israel the green light on Iran, giving them moral justification: "America stands with you in firmly opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. Permitting the world's leading sponsor of terror to possess the world's deadliest weapons would be an unforgivable betrayal for future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
But he also gave ammunition to Arab and Palestinian critics who say he is not an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, he quoted Jeremiah's Biblical claim that God gave the Jews the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, including the West Bank and Gaza--Manifest Destiny with a Holy text.
The establishment of the state of Israel, he said, "was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David: A homeland for the chosen people--Eretz Yisrael."
Palestinians would also be angered by his declaration: "We consider it a source of shame that the United Nations routinely passes more human rights resolutions against the freest democracy in the Middle East than any other national in world."
Those resolutions are in response to Israeli treatment of Palestinians.