Barack Obama rebuked Republican rival John McCain and President Bush for "dishonest, divisive" attacks in hinting that the Democratic presidential candidate would appease terrorists, staunchly defending his national security credentials for the general election campaign.
Obama responded Friday to Bush's speech Thursday to the Israeli Knesset. The president referred to the leader of Iran, who has called for the destruction of the U.S. ally, and then said some seem to believe that we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals — comments Obama and Democrats said were directed at them. McCain subsequently said Obama must explain why he wants to talk with rogue leaders.
"I'm a strong believer in civility and I'm a strong believer in a bipartisan foreign policy, but that cause is not served with dishonest, divisive attacks of the sort that we've seen out of George Bush and John McCain over the last couple days, " Obama told about 2,000 voters at a town hall-style meeting in a livestock barn.
Obama said McCain had a "naive and irresponsible belief that tough talk from Washington will somehow cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism."
During his swing through South Dakota, the Democratic front-runner said he had intended to focus on rural issues, but felt compelled to respond to the criticism from Bush and McCain.
"They aren't telling you the truth. They are trying to fool you and scare you because they can't win a foreign policy debate on the merits," said Obama. "But it's not going to work. Not this time, not this year."
Bush did not mention Obama by name in his speech, but Obama and other Democrats said the implication was clear.
"That's exactly the kind of appalling attack that's divided our country and that alienates us from the world," Obama said. He vowed to turn the foreign policy debate back against both Bush and McCain, rejecting the notion that Democrats critical of the war in Iraq are vulnerable to charges of being soft on terrorism.
"If they want a debate about protecting the United States of America, that's a debate I'm ready to win because George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for," Obama said. He blamed Bush's policies for enhancing the strength of terrorist groups such as Hamas and "the fact that al-Qaida's leadership is stronger than ever because we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan," among other failings.
In response, the McCain campaign said in a statement, "It was remarkable to see Barack Obama's hysterical diatribe in response to a speech in which his name wasn't even mentioned. These are serious issues that deserve a serious debate, not the same tired partisan rants we heard today from Senator Obama."
The Illinois senator also said that he has stated "over and over again that I will not negotiate with terrorists like Hamas."
Meeting with reporters, Obama argued that tough-minded diplomacy and engagement with rivals is a bipartisan foreign policy that dates to former Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan.
"That has been the history of U.S. diplomacy until very recently," said Obama, who said he was comfortable engaging McCain in a foreign policy debate. "I find it puzzling that we view this as in any way controversial. This whole notion of not talking to people, it didn't hold in the '60s, it didn't hold in the '70s ... When Kennedy met with Kruschev, we were on the brink of nuclear war."
He also noted that former President Nixon opened talks with China, "with the knowledge that Mao had exterminated millions of people." He said he was confident making the case that McCain's policy is flawed.
Some worry that Obama would fall victim to criticism from Republicans that he's soft on terrorism.
"I'm happy to have a debate with John McCain and George Bush about foreign policy," said Obama. "If John McCain wants to meet me anywhere, any time to have a debate about our respective policies ... that is a conversation I am happy to have."
Other Democrats accused McCain of hypocrisy Friday, saying the certain GOP presidential nominee had previously been willing to negotiate with the militant Palestian group Hamas.
In Charleston, W.Va., speaking before Obama's speech, McCain told reporters: "I made it very clear, at that time, before and after, that we will not negotiate with terrorist organizations, that Hamas would have to abandon their terrorism, their advocacy to the extermination of the state of Israel, and be willing to negotiate in a way that recognizes the right of the state of Israel and abandons their terrorist position and advocacy."
McCain contended that Obama wants to "sit down and negotiate with a government exporting most lethal devices used against soldiers. He wants to sit down face-to-face with a government that is very clear about developing nuclear weapons. ... They are sponsors of terrorist organizations. That's a huge difference in my opinion. And I'll let the American people decide whether that's a significant difference or not. I believe it is."
In an op-ed published Friday in The Washington Post, former Clinton State Department official James Rubin said that McCain, responding to a question in a television interview two years ago about whether U.S. diplomats should be working with the Hamas government in Gaza, said:
"They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy toward Hamas because of their dedication to violence and the things that they not only espouse but practice, so ... But it's a new reality in the Middle East. I think the lesson is people want security and a decent life and decent future, that they want democracy. Fatah was not giving them that."
Rubin, who interviewed McCain for the British network Sky News, said McCain is "guilty of hypocrisy" and accused him of "smearing" Obama.