Please appease me: What's your Iran plan?

The difference between Obama's and McCain's campaign rhetoric is less than it appears.

Iran Shihab miss 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Iran Shihab miss 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
I don't believe that John McCain is Dr. Strangelove or that Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain, but I suspect that nobody has a clue about what to do about Iran. I say this after the week of back and forth between Republicans and Democrats over President Bush's "Who said I was talking about Obama?" speech to the Israeli Knesset. That was the speech in which he criticized an unnamed "some" who "believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals." The president called such thinking the "false comfort of appeasement." But look carefully at the speech and you will find not a word about the alternative policy he is pursuing. Sure, there was lofty talk about spreading freedom throughout the region and a dream, 60 years hence, when Syria and Iran will be peaceful nations. But he offers no clue about how to get from 2008 to 2068 - or even 2009. And meanwhile, according to the Near East Report, AIPAC's newsletter, Iran boasted this month of a "five-fold increase in its nuclear abilities." JOHN McCAIN picked up on the president's "appeasement" motif, lambasting Obama and saying an "ill-conceived meeting between the president of the United States and the president of Iran, and the massive world media coverage it would attract, would increase the prestige of an implacable foe of the United States." McCain's alternative? Again, read the presumptive Republican candidate's remarks to the National Restaurant Association (that hotbed of foreign policy debate) and see if you can figure out how a McCain administration would confront Iran. For that you might turn to his campaign's answers to a candidates' questionnaire by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. There McCain lays out his support for multilateral sanctions, letting China and Russia "know that Iran will be a critical element in America's bilateral relations with each nation," launching a US-sponsored divestment campaign, and reassuring "the millions of Iranians who aspire to self-determination that we support their longing for freedom and democracy." A sober and responsible plan, but not exactly "Unconditional Surrender" Grant at the gates of Fort Donelson. It's basically a continuation of the Bush doctrine, and we know how well that's going. As Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote this week, "While Bush makes threat after threat and Western foreign ministers gather in various conclaves, Iran continues to expand its nuclear capacity." AS FOR Obama, he also told the Wiesenthal Center that he supports "tough sanctions and increased economic pressure that will be required to show Iran that its refusal to live up to its international commitments has real costs." Unlike McCain, Obama suggests that such diplomacy might include "carrots" in the form of "normalized relations over time." But if you think that's appeasement, keep reading: Obama then warns that "if such efforts fail, we will have shown our allies - and countries like Russia and China - that we have tried every option, thereby increasing the likelihood the world will support more coercive measures to dissuade Iran." When Obama says he intends to send a "clear indication that all options remain on the table," he sounds like none other than the White House official who said May 20, "As the president has said, no president of the United States should ever take options off the table, but our preference and our actions for dealing with this matter remain through peaceful diplomatic means." THE OBAMA-McCAIN debate on Iran is being touted as a defining foreign policy issue dividing them. But when you break down their campaign rhetoric, the difference between them is less than it appears. Both call for a strong sanctions regime and international pressure. Both include tough talk if diplomacy fails. And neither, quite frankly, is very reassuring that his plan will work. The big difference is that Obama will say out loud that he supports the possibility of diplomatic contacts between his administration and Iran. McCain and his supporters call such overtures "naive" and dangerous. Obama and his supporters say such diplomacy is no more "naive" than the ongoing contacts between the United States and the Soviets during the Cold War. In a bid for foreign policy prowess and Jewish voters, McCain wants to appear the tougher candidate on Iran. The next president's Iran approach must be tough, sure, but backed with a strategy that is wise, nimble, and persuasive. The "toughness" McCain is touting is not a position - it's a posture. It's a posture, moreover, that has gotten us bogged down in a war that was a failure of diplomatic will as much as military planning. The challenge to the next president is daunting. A strategy of "suspension for incentives" has failed to dissuade Teheran from its nuclear ambitions. Americans have little stomach for another military adventure. At some point, the candidates will need to get past political arguments about the "carrot" or the "stick," and "appeasement" versus "recklessness." This voter wants them to discuss one thing - what works and what doesn't. The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. He blogs at