Barack Obama is, for the moment, winning the silly appeasement debate raging in American politics, but the fact that the fight is occurring at all highlights a set of vulnerabilities that Obama must address quickly if he is to win in November. Because he is still distracted by a prolonged primary battle with Hillary Clinton, Obama has left John McCain and his surrogate in the White House an unfettered opportunity to set the agenda. By raising the appeasement issue, Republicans have signaled their intent to try to scare voters away from the Democratic nominee. They plan to depict Obama as unpatriotic, weak, muddled and naive in his thinking about the world, and ultimately, unwilling to fight.
The silver lining in this strategy is that this was entirely predictable. The bad news is that Democrats have not fully figured out how to address these questions and put them to rest. While he stresses the importance of diplomacy, Obama must, if he is to win this easily winnable fight, demonstrate his willingness to use force.
Obama's success thus far is due, in part, to the fact that he is in a fight with George Bush. In suggesting that Obama would appease the country's enemies, the president picked a fight he could not win. The gods have delivered one of the all-time great political gifts to Democrats in the form of Bush, who is now so politically toxic that if he says he loves his mother, the favorability numbers for motherhood begin to suffer.
What struck me about Bush's comments before the Knesset is how antiquated they felt. There is something old-fashioned and musty, fetid almost, about the appeasement discussion; it has a time-capsule quality as if taking place without any recognition of the last 60 years. The notion of trying to buy peace on the cheap pretty much died with the birth of the nuclear age.
My initial reaction was that Bush had, once again, misread the occasion and was using a friendly audience to make cheap political points and rationalize the disaster that his foreign policy had become. He was again drawing parallels that did not apply. Classic bush, nothing new there.
But the debate has refused to die, sucking John McCain and Barack Obama into one of the early heats of the general election. It has now mutated into a debate about "meetings without precondition" and, as Joe Leiberman wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "sitting down unconditionally with Ahmadinejad or Chavez."
The fact that both Bush and John McCain thought this might be an effective strategy against Obama speaks to a perceived weakness among Democrats on foreign policy and national security. For years, Republicans have been conflating war-mongering with patriotism and diplomacy with weakness. If you're not telling jokes about bombing somebody, you're a weakling, and Democrats have allowed themselves to be tagged that way often enough that they are now required to constantly reassure voters that this is not, or no longer, true.
When Obama talks about the need to restore faith in the "strength of our diplomacy and the power of our ideals," what a lot of people hear — because they've been so conditioned — is that he would rather talk than fight. This is what Republicans seek to take advantage of, framing it as a choice between those who are willing to fight and those who are not. It's cynical and devious, not to mention dangerous, but it has often been effective. Obama cannot afford to find himself on the defensive on this point, not even in the current Bush-averse environment.
The utter failure in Iraq has so thoroughly discredited the world view of the of the saber-rattler crowd, that their efforts to define Democrats as weak have little currency at the moment. Still, as Obama exposes the folly of the Bush-McCain-Lieberman position of threatening military confrontation in the absence of any diplomacy, he needs to flesh out his 'aggressive diplomacy' doctrine by acknowledging that he understands the world to be a difficult and unpredictable place, that diplomacy has limits and that, if necessary, he is willing to use force. This position may be so obvious that it feels crass and calculated to explain it repeatedly, but Americans need to be reassured, in part because of 9/11, but also because the Republicans have been so effective in the past in scaring them.
Either as a prelude or a prologue to his diplomacy arguments, Obama needs to establish that a fight is in no way off the table. There are those who believe that Obama's position on talking to "our friends as well as our enemies," is accidental policy that grew out of a serendipitous moment when he answered a question in one of those 947 debates among the Democratic contenders. Having said he would meet with our adversaries, the reasoning goes, he could not back out. If that's true, he has lucked into some good politics. But even if Iraq has put a little sheen on the value of diplomacy, Americans like to know that that their president is willing to use the Big Stick if he needs to.
Obama must not let himself get trapped in the anti-war persona that has worked so well for him thus far. One of Hillary Clinton's best moments of the primary campaign was the day she said that if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, they would be obliterated. The hypothetical stand-off had a clean, simple logic that begged for hyperbole, and Clinton took the opportunity to lay out a clear and forceful position. Obama called it 'saber-rattling' and then lost Pennsylvania by nine points that same day.
Obama cannot allow McCain to trap him in the same corner, a fact he seems, now, to understand. In February, he seemed forceful about his willingness to play tough with Pakistan: "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again," he said. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will."
There it is: All people want to know, really, is that there will be action when action is called for. They should be reassured, appeased even.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.