Thousands of miles and just a few hours apart on Tuesday, two of the three politicians who soon hope to lead the free world correctly identified Islamic extremism as a cause, rather than a consequence, of conflict in the Middle East. Barack Obama did so in the context of a potentially campaign-defining speech condemning comments by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who once notoriously described the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US as a partial payback for America's support for Israel's "state terrorism against the Palestinians." John McCain did so in the course of an interview with The Jerusalem Post, the only interview he conducted with the Israeli media during the latest in a series of visits he has made to Israel going back almost 30 years. Unfortunately, neither man offered a cogent program for thwarting the widening indoctrination of young Muslims with anti-Israeli and anti-Western hatred, and for prevailing against the violence these death-cult recruits then unleash. Still, McCain is plainly grappling with how best to confound the Islamists' ambitions. In Philadelphia, it must be said, Obama wasn't really trying. The principal focus of that address was to stem the damage being caused to his campaign by the distribution of tapes featuring Wright's racially charged comments. Thus the Democratic candidate moved on quickly after criticizing the "distorted view" expressed by Wright "that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." Elsewhere to date, though, Obama's most commonly expressed solution to Iran's power drive and Islamist ambitions has been a professed readiness to sit down and talk with the Iranian leadership, and thus to signal a willingness to resolve conflicts peacefully. At the same time, he has also acknowledged that diplomacy alone will not thwart Iran's nuclear march. McCain, by contrast, was resolute in our interview in stating the need to forcefully confront the spread of Islamic extremism at every level. A "titanic struggle," he called it. He was adamant about the need to prevent Iran achieving a nuclear weapons capability. And speaking specifically of Hamas, he vigorously opposed appeasing those who seek your destruction by sitting down and engaging them. As you will have read in today's paper, McCain gave lengthy and passionate answers when asked how Israel might more effectively fight the kinds of asymmetrical terrorist and missile wars the Iranian-backed Hamas and Hizbullah are waging against it. But though lengthy and passionate, they were answers ultimately strikingly short on specifics. He recognized that the ballyhooed international sanctions campaign against Teheran has had no serious impact. But the man who has developed an ethos about not going to war unless you are prepared to use all the resources necessary to ensure victory sounded uncertain when pushed as to precisely how the free world is going to prevail in this one. Given the determined strides Iran is taking toward a weapons capability, and the immediate remaking of the regional, indeed the global, balance of power such a capability would represent, Obama's counterproductive naivety could not be more disturbing. But McCain's vagueness is worrying too. By the time either could settle on a coherent and adequate course of action, one might reasonably fear, the Iranian nuclear genie would be out of the bottle. OBAMA'S SPEECH was a remarkable balancing act, and his effort to explain that he can "no more disown him [Wright] than I can my white grandmother," a masterpiece of emotive oratory. "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding and baptized my children," said Obama of the preacher. He asked three rhetorical questions one after the other - "Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy?"; "Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church?"; and "Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views?" - and answered all three in the affirmative. Yet he justified his continued association with this troublesome priest by asserting that "I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed." A spiritual leader, however influential, is not family, though. Indeed, a spiritual leader who takes public positions at odds with values his congregants regard as central would expect to lose the support of that community. When the figure to whom you look for moral guidance and clarity makes remarks with which you "strongly disagree," you don't shrug them off because of the longevity and centrality of your relationship; you seek your guidance elsewhere. By implication, therefore, what Obama appears to be saying is that the areas in which he has found himself in disagreement with Wright - including, but certainly not limited to his pastor's thinking on the problems of the Middle East - were not sufficiently acute and alienating as to have outweighed the areas of common purpose. In the light of Wright's wrongheaded belief that Israel's efforts to quash terrorism are actually its cause, that's acutely discomfiting when viewed from Jerusalem. WHILE MCCAIN would plainly have no time for those who mistake victimizer for victimized, our conversation with him held no panaceas either. It may be that the Republicans' presumptive nominee has conceived a thorough prescription for galvanizing credible international pressure to deter Iran and, military veteran and strategist that he is, formulated a means to defend civilians against Islamist terror without creating yet more fertile ground in the process from which terror leaders can recruit. But if so, he gave no hint of this in our interview. He said he was familiar enough with the contours of the Arab-Israeli conflict "to be personally engaged" in the efforts he would lead as president to resolve it, but looked repeatedly to the accompanying Sen. Joe Lieberman for reassurance when answering our more detailed questions. At one point, McCain plainly had no answer at all to a query on settlements, but didn't want to duck the question, and fell silent in a way that would have been acutely embarrassing in a televised debate, but was disarmingly unpolished in a newspaper interview. McCain is a bona fide war hero, who narrowly escaped death on numerous occasions while serving his country and was tortured mercilessly when refusing to be sent home early by his Vietnamese captors after he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967. (They had sought to undermine American morale by releasing the admiral's son ahead of rank-and-file POWs, and imposed a terrible price on prisoner McCain for his defiantly principled unwillingness to cooperate during more than five years in captivity.) It seemed likely, therefore, that he might have something original to suggest when asked how he would handle the issue of Israel's three kidnapped soldiers - what price to pay, what to say to the families. While warm and empathetic, however, McCain's response was limited to a confident assertion that Israel was striving to do right by the men it had sent into battle without, at the same time, irresponsibly creating circumstances in which more soldiers would fall into enemy hands or lose their lives. He was similarly diplomatic in his comments on Jerusalem - that it must be Israel's capital, but that Palestinian claims in the city are a matter for bilateral negotiation. But if that was a response perfectly calibrated to avoid causing offense to either side, McCain was notably forthright in stating his support for America's "partner," Israel, in insisting that there was no way in which such support should disqualify him as an honest broker between Israel and those Palestinians who genuinely seek reconciliation, and in rejecting any talk of legitimizing Islamic extremists and their ostensible grievances. The visiting senator's central message was one of recognition of the genocidal threat posed by Islamist ambition - not only to Israel, but to the US and the rest of the West. His challenge is to find the means to repel it. And were his pastor to preach an opposing world view, one rather thinks, John McCain would leave his church without so much as a backward glance.