Washington Post: Borrowing a familiar theme from past GOP presidential campaigns, Sen. John McCain is sharpening his efforts to portray Sen. Barack Obama as naive and inexperienced on foreign policy, rolling out an ad that accuses the Democrat of not taking Iran seriously and ridiculing his explanation for the end of the Cold War.
The Washington Post
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008; A31
Borrowing a familiar theme from past GOP presidential campaigns, Sen. John McCain is sharpening his efforts to portray Sen. Barack Obama as naive and inexperienced on foreign policy, rolling out an ad that accuses the Democrat of not taking Iran seriously and ridiculing his explanation for the end of the Cold War.
The efforts amounted to a preemptive GOP strike on the Democratic nominee's foreign policy credentials. But as their party's convention shifted its focus yesterday to national security, leading Democrats sought to turn the tables by questioning McCain's judgment on Iraq and accusing Republicans of making America less secure.
"Our position in the world has been weakened by too much unilateralism and too little cooperation," former president Bill Clinton told delegates last night.
The debate evokes past presidential contests, in which Republicans lacerated Democratic nominees as weak on national security. This year, however, polls suggest that Democrats have been closing the gap in public perceptions over which party is most capable of dealing with external threats.
"In some way, the McCain people would love to see this as a repeat of Reagan versus Carter in 1980, where Reagan got to run as the candidate of America and Carter was the candidate of complexity and no answers," said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The latest attempt to frame the issue that way came yesterday with a new McCain television ad quoting Obama as describing Iran as a "tiny" country that "doesn't pose a serious threat." The Obama campaign said his words were taken out of context.
The quote came from a May 18 speech in which Obama talked about the importance of U.S. presidents talking to their adversaries, as they did during the Cold War. "Iran, Cuba, Venezuela — these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us. And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying, 'We're going to wipe you off the planet,' " Obama said.
Susan Rice, an Obama foreign policy adviser, called the McCain ad "another dishonest and desperate attack that bears zero relationship to reality," adding that Iran poses more of a threat now than eight years ago because "failed Bush-McCain policies have let that threat grow."
Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster and former foreign policy aide in the Clinton White House, said the McCain attacks are unlikely to succeed because voters have been soured by the "toxic and dangerous effects of a neocon unilateralist style that has nearly shattered our alliances and made Americans weaker."
"I don't think it has the same resonance and intellectual honesty that it had in an earlier era," Rosner said. "The public feels the Republicans have been quite reckless on these things."
Republicans have proved effective in painting the Democrats as feckless on foreign policy, seizing on particular comments to make a broader point. During the 2004 campaign, for instance, President Bush denounced his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), for suggesting that the United States would have to pass a "global test" for preemptive military action. Bush said Kerry was ceding national security decisions to other countries. Kerry's campaign said Bush was distorting his words.
A similar dispute unfolded this week, after McCain went after Obama's recent comments about the end of the Cold War. During a speech in Berlin last month, Obama said, "People of the world — look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one."
McCain, in a speech before the American Legion's convention in Phoenix, disputed what he said was Obama's conclusion. "The Cold War ended not because the world stood 'as one' but because the great democracies came together, bound together by sustained and decisive American leadership," McCain said.
Supporters of McCain said he was raising a fair point. "For a lot of people who lived through the '80s, Obama's version does not ring quite right, and I do think it says something about his view of the world," said Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and informal adviser to the McCain campaign. "It does fit into a certain way of looking at the world that takes the view that all you ever need to do is get everyone in the same room and have a nice, pleasant chat and work everything out."
But Obama backers bristled at the criticism, saying McCain was caricaturing his rival's explanation for the end of the Cold War. "I don't understand the McCain criticism," Rosner said. "He's saying we prevailed because we had allies working together. Barack Obama is saying the same thing. . . . Obviously, the whole world didn't stand as one. It's obviously figurative."
Reginald Dale of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the debate touches on a larger theme of recent years.
"Historically . . . the Democrats as a whole, including Obama, have tended to look at the world more like Europeans. They think that things can be settled by negotiation and signing new treaties," Dale said. "Republicans tend to be more skeptical of the influence of a united Europe and [want to] protect American sovereignty against the encroachment of treaties, multinational organizations and international agreements."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman in Denver and staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.