Barack Obama has launched a scathing attack on the foreign policy "hypocrisy" of John McCain and President Bush, using aggressive language designed to stop the Republicans painting him as weak on US security.
In a week when Mr Bush likened the Obama policy of talking to America's enemies to "appeasement" of the Nazis, and Mr McCain endorsed the President's controversial remarks, Mr Obama has returned fire quickly and with a vigour never mustered by John Kerry in his failed campaign four years ago.
The Obama camp is trying to label Mr McCain as this year's "flip-flopper" on foreign policy, citing a 2006 interview on Sky News when he advocated talking to the Palestinian group Hamas. The Democratic front-runner accused Mr Bush and Mr McCain of supporting a "naive and irresponsible" foreign policy, as he sought not only to combat a perceived weakness of his own, but to yoke his prospective opponent to the unpopular incumbent.
The exchanges represent the first major battle of the general election campaign. Though they come before Mr Obama has formally wrapped up the Democratic nomination, since he remains 17 delegates short of the necessary majority over Hillary Clinton, the party establishment rallied behind his robust stance. The Obama camp warned that a McCain presidency would extend for another four years a foreign policy that has failed to tackle Islamic extremism, failed to capture Osama bin Laden and only emboldened Iran in the Middle East.
"If George Bush and John McCain want to have a debate about protecting the United States of America," Mr Obama said at a rally in South Dakota, "that is a debate I am happy to have any time, any place." He accused the Republicans of "fear-mongering" and pointed to the Sky News interview – shortly after Hamas won the Palestinian elections – to argue that Senator McCain once took a more pragmatic line. In the interview, conducted by James Rubin, a former spokesman for the State department in Bill Clinton's administration, Senator McCain was asked if US diplomacy in Palestine should change after Hamas took power. "They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another," he answered. "I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy towards Hamas because of their dedication to violence ... but it's a new reality in the Middle East."
Mr Obama said this weekend: "He was actually guilty of the exact same thing that he is accusing me of, and in fact was saying maybe we need to deal with Hamas. That's the kind of hypocrisy we've been seeing in our foreign policy."
Mr McCain has repeatedly highlighted how a Hamas spokesman expressed a preference for an Obama victory, saying he is effectively "endorsed by terrorists". He said his own position in 2006 was that there should be no talks with Hamas until it renounced violence – a position Mr Obama shares.
Democrats are firmly expecting foreign policy to be a major battleground in the presidential campaign, and the Republicans believe that it has the potential to become Mr Obama's biggest weakness in November, as voters contrast a veteran politician and war hero with a one-term Senator advocating negotiations with Iran and other rogue states.
In his speech to the Israeli Knesset on Thursday, Mr Bush did not name Senator Obama but linked to appeasement of theNazis "the foolish delusion" that "we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals".
The President also linked Hamas, Hizbollah and al-Qa'ida as the enemies of the US in the "ancient battle between good and evil".
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