AIPAC conference reignites fight between McCain and Obama

In a speech at the conference, John McCain ridicules Barack Obama's positions on Iran and Iraq; Obama's campaign is quick to hit back.

Published June 2, 2008 10:04PM (EDT)

Monday morning, John McCain used a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington to continue his offensive against Barack Obama's philosophy regarding foreign policy.

After stating that Iran remains "the world's chief sponsor of terrorism and threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East," McCain called for increased sanctions against the nation. The presumptive Republican nominee then took the opportunity to lay into Obama. "We hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before," McCain said. "Yet it's hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another. Such a spectacle would harm Iranian moderates and dissidents, as the radicals and hardliners strengthen their position and suddenly acquire the appearance of respectability." (For the record, there's no reason to believe that a presidential-level meeting between the U.S. and Iran would necessarily involve Ahmadinejad; first, he doesn't control his country's foreign policy, and second, he might well be out of office by the time such a meeting was arranged. But suggesting that Obama wants to meet with the controversial Iranian president has obvious political advantages.)

Later, McCain went on to criticize Obama's opposition to a Senate bill that classified Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, saying of Obama, "Here, too, he is mistaken." Then, in a now-familiar talking point, McCain warned that Obama will withdraw troops from Iraq in a dangerously quick fashion. "He now says he intends to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, one to two brigades per month until they are all removed," McCain said. "He will do so regardless of the conditions in Iraq, regardless of the consequences for our national security, regardless of Israel's security, and in disregard of the best advice of our commanders on the ground."

Because the McCain campaign had provided excerpts of the speech to the press prior to the event, the Obama campaign was able to strike back before McCain even finished speaking. The campaign released a statement that emphasized the similarities between George W. Bush's foreign policy and McCain's current stance. The rebuttal said, "John McCain promises four more years of the same policies that have strengthened Iran, making the United States and Israel less safe. He promises to continue a war in Iraq that has emboldened Iran and strengthened its hand."

However, the statement also put forward an interesting argument about Obama's position on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. During the Democratic primary, many Obama supporters pointed out that while Obama voted nay on the Lieberman-Kyl amendment, a Senate measure that designated the Iranian group a terrorist organization, Hillary Clinton supported the bill. The Obama supporters argued that this showed Clinton was more hawkish when it came to foreign policy.

However, today, when responding to McCain, the Obama campaign advanced a contrary argument. The campaign statement extolled Obama's support of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, a separate measure from 2007 that Obama cosponsored. In addition to tightening sanctions on Iran, the bill would have termed the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. According to Marc Ambinder, the campaign said that Obama opposed the Lieberman-Kyl amendment "because he didn't like how the amendment linked U.S. troop presence in the Middle East with Iran's ability to threaten the region." In the statement, the Obama campaign also reaffirmed the candidate's stance that he would only remove troops "according to the situation and commanders on the grounds." Obama is scheduled to speak before AIPAC Wednesday, as is Clinton.

A Gallup poll out today suggests McCain's criticism of Obama isn't having the desired effect, and could even backfire. According to the poll, "Large majorities of Democrats and independents, and even half of Republicans, believe the president of the United States should meet with the leaders of countries that are considered enemies of the United States. Overall, 67 percent of Americans say this kind of diplomacy is a good idea." Seventy-nine percent of Democrats favor such diplomacy, along with 70 percent of independents.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.