Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between Democrats and Republicans when talking about the Middle East. With the major exception of the hot-button issue of Iraq, candidates from the two American parties invariably talk tough about fighting terrorism, are severely critical of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, and are strongly supportive of Israel. Even on Iraq, there has been a convergence of positions of late, with some Republicans suggesting that it is an open question whether the current strategy is succeeding and Democrats squeamish about advocating an immediate withdrawal. Recent polls indicate that more Americans believe that the "surge" in Iraq is working, that the war itself was not a mistake, and support for President George W. Bush - while still extremely low - is rising.
JPost.com special: Road to the White House
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol thinks a corner has been turned: "July began as a month of hope [for Iraq war opponents]. It ended in retreat. It began with Democratic unity in proclaiming the inevitability of American defeat. It ended with respected military analysts - Democrats, no less! - reporting that the situation on the ground had improved, and that the war might be winnable."
Politics aside, this trend is certainly a welcome one, since an American defeat in Iraq would be catastrophic for Israel and other Western-aligned elements in the region. Such a defeat would greatly encourage Teheran and its proxies and allies, which is why Iran is working so hard to foment terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere in the first place.
But Iraq is not the only issue, and perhaps not even the most important one. The central foreign policy question in the world today, whether from the US point of view or not, is how to prosecute the "war against terrorism," or less euphemistically, the war against Islamofascism.
It is here that it worth paying attention to the thread of difference that runs through the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans: the former invariably call for "direct talks" with America's adversaries while the latter do not.
Our JPost.com blog "The Road to the White House" asked the candidates this week: "Which Assad do you believe? The one who threatens war or the one who says he wants to make peace?"
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) responded that Syria should be "presented with a clear choice." If President Bashar Assad did not alter his policies, he should "face greater isolation and tougher sanctions." At the same time, Obama said he "would engage Syria in direct bilateral talks while insisting on our core demands."
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) said much the same: Pressure should be increased on Damascus while engaging it in "diplomatic discussions."
By contrast, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said, "Hizbullah must be disarmed and its patron in Damascus confronted. The US and the international community must face Syria from a position of strength and apply real pressure on the Assad regime to change its dangerous behavior in the region."
Democrats seem to be contrasting themselves with Bush's supposed aversion to multilateralism and emphasis on force, while the Republicans are projecting toughness in a hostile world. The dichotomy, however, between force and diplomacy is largely a false one.
Rogue regimes like Iran and Syria cannot be influenced solely by diplomacy. There are only two real recipes for success against such regimes: their removal from power, either by their own people or by external forces; or the regime's capitulation, after concluding that its unacceptable behavior, such as building nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism, had become too costly to continue.
The latter happened in Libya. But this success of sanctions and diplomacy was achieved only after the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq had been removed by force.
The conclusion should be that the carrot-and-stick approach favored by both parties can only work if the sticks are convincing enough. There is certainly room for diplomacy and coalition building, but these means only work when backed by measures, military or not, sufficient to compromise the power of the regime.
Today's threats demand that Americans, and the West generally, present a united front. Rather than exaggerating foreign policy differences, we hope that Democrats and Republicans can agree that both force and diplomacy have roles in confronting the greatest threat to global freedom since the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the Cold War.
This threat should not be allowed to grow further before returning to the war-time American adage that "politics should stop at the water's edge."