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Worldview: Bush slams the talks his team fosters

I guess President Bush must think Defense Secretary Bob Gates is an appeaser of terrorists. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, too. And U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, as well.

I guess President Bush must think Defense Secretary Bob Gates is an appeaser of terrorists. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, too. And U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, as well.

What else is one to conclude from the president's remarks Thursday at the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, where he proclaimed: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them." After a reference to Nazi tanks rolling into Poland, the president continued: "We have an obligation to call this what it is - the false comfort of appeasement."

No doubt Bush's jab was aimed at Sen. Barack Obama, who has called for unconditional talks with Tehran. Yet Bush's own team seems as interested in broad talks with Iran as the senator from Illinois.

Last week, Gates told the American Academy of Diplomacy: "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage with respect to the Iranians and then sit down and talk with them."

In January, Rice - speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland - said that, if Tehran would halt its uranium-enrichment program, she'd meet her Iranian counterpart "any place, any time, anywhere to talk about anything." And Crocker, on instructions from Washington, has held three meetings with Iran's ambassador to Baghdad.

So is the president going to oust his top foreign policy team? Of course not. In a stunning display of chutzpah, Bush compares Obama to Neville Chamberlain, but hasn't banned his own team from talking with representatives of Iran.

What makes the president's remarks even more hypocritical is the abject failure of his own Iran policy. No one has strengthened Iran's hand more in the Mideast than George W. Bush.

The Bush team totally failed to foresee that the ouster of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein - the two key enemies of Iran's ayatollahs - would make Tehran the strongest player in the region. Nor did the U.S. team grasp how much influence Iran would inevitably wield with a Shiite-led government in Iraq.

In 2003, when the United States was operating from strength and Iran's leadership was more moderate, senior officials in Tehran put out feelers for negotiations. The Iranians were willing to include their stance toward the Jewish state on the agenda. These overtures were ignored by the administration.

"One of the questions that I think historians will have to take a look at," Gates said last week, "is whether there was a missed opportunity at that time." Instead, Bush talked of the "axis of evil" and Iran regime change.

Since then, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Iran's position has hardened. Its support for Hezbollah and Hamas gives it huge and disturbing influence in Lebanon and Gaza. Iran has continued enriching uranium, which most experts say they believe is aimed at giving it the capacity to make nuclear weapons. And soaring oil prices have made it more resistant to international economic sanctions.

Bush has backed himself into a corner where U.S. options and leverage are shrinking. The U.S. military dreads the war option - bombing Iranian military or nuclear-enrichment facilities. Why? Because it would only delay, not end, Iran's nuclear program, while strengthening the regime and radical Islamists in the region. It would also undermine our position inside Iraq.

Faced with this impasse, Bush did an Obama last year - he OKd the concept of U.S. talks with Tehran. But he did it in a halfhearted way bound to fail.

Talks for talks' sake mean nothing. The only talks that make sense would be those that figured out what we had that Iran wanted. In other words, a serious economic and diplomatic package that would test whether there are still pragmatists in the regime who want to integrate Iran into the wider world.

Obviously, U.S. security concerns would be on the table: the nuclear issue, Israel, Lebanon and Iraq. But, as Gates put it cogently last week: "If there's going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander with them."

Maybe such talks would go nowhere. Maybe what could have worked in 2004 is no longer possible, and the next president will have to abandon that option. But we will never know until we try.

That's what Obama has recognized.

What's so bizarre about Bush's high moral dudgeon on Iran talks is that he abandoned this principle when it came to North Korea. After years of a failed policy that enabled leader Kim Jong Il to produce more nuclear weapons, Bush finally opted for talks that have produced some results. This although Kim is a mass murderer whose policies have starved hundreds of thousands to death.

Sen. John McCain's outrage over the idea of Iran talks is equally hypocritical. He managed last week to put forward a dream of how he would "win" the Iraq war by 2013 that never mentioned Iraq's Persian neighbor. Yet there is no way Iraq can be stabilized and U.S. troops withdrawn safely without the cooperation of Tehran. McCain is fooling himself and the public if he thinks he can avoid the issue of talks.

If McCain is elected, he'll quickly realize that force cannot be his only option with Iran. As Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently to the Washington Post: "I'm a big believer in resolving this [the Iran issue] diplomatically, economically and politically." Mullen said the military aspect, while important, should be an option of "last resort."

My bet is that McCain would quickly shift positions in office. After all, he once said we had to deal with Hamas, even though he now tries to push the canard that Obama sympathizes with Hamas.

As for Obama, he would be smarter to focus on Iran talks without preconditions, and drop talk of meeting Ahmadinejad. In the Iranian system, Ahmadinejad is not the top leader, and his inflammatory rhetoric makes it hard to contemplate a profitable tete-a-tete.

"What I have said consistently is that we should have direct talks with Iran without preconditions but not without preparation," Obama told the Inquirer editorial board last month. He spoke of starting with "lower-level diplomats" and working up "to more substantial discussions."

That is a commonsense approach that reflects America's security interests.

Bush should stop linking Obama's approach to a Munich syndrome - unless, that is, he wants to smear his own foreign policy and his own team.