When it comes to foreign policy, I wish we could have a presidential candidate called McBama.
On critical issues, like dealing with Iraq and Iran, Barrack Obama is too raw, and John McCain is too rigid. Somewhere in between lies the policy America needs.
Nowhere is the need for melding so clear as in the flap over negotiating with Iran.
This crucial issue has become buried under a ridiculous rain of rhetoric exchanged by the two candidates. The Bush administration's Iran policy has been a dangerous failure and will desperately need revision by the next president.
Yet, instead of spurring a serious security debate, the Iran issue has become mired in silliness. McCain, who in past years has endorsed talks with Syria and Hamas, now presents himself as "Dr. No." Evoking his gravitas as a military hero, the senator echoes President Bush's charges that negotiating with "terrorists and radicals" (read Iran) equals appeasement.
"The president is absolutely right," opines McCain.
Obama, on the other hand, has left himself wide open to charges of naivete. During CNN's presidential debate in January, a questioner asked whether he would imitate the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who travelled to Israel in a move that ultimately led to a peace treaty.
The questioner further asked whether Obama would meet without preconditions with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama snapped back, "I would."
That reply shifted the debate away from the key point - should the United States open unconditional talks with Iran on a wide range of security issues. Instead the argument is now focused on a sideshow: Should the next president talk with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Had Obama taken a deep breath, he might have realized that the CNN questioner threw him a lifeline. Sadat travelled to Israel only after Israeli and Egyptian emissaries had held secret meetings that worked out a deal. Obama could have said he would emulate the Sadat approach - no summits before progress at lower levels.
In recent weeks, Obama has indeed stressed he wouldn't talk before extensive preparations. But the image lingers of an inexperienced president sitting by as Ahmadinejad prated of Israel's destruction. Obama's mistake was to portray a new Iran policy in personal, rather than strategic, terms.
The issue should not be whether to "engage in aggressive personal diplomacy" (Obama's words) with leaders of difficult states. Rather, the question is whether a different U.S. strategy can prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and moderate its Mideast policy. We must find out.
But McCain clings to the administration's failed policy - no broad talks before Iran freezes its enrichment of uranium. Flush with oil money, Iran has ignored White House pressure and U.N. economic sanctions. Nor is there any sign that Tehran's policy will change so long as Bush is in office.
McCain seems oblivious to the bad options toward which this policy leads: accept a nuclear Iran, or bomb Iranian nuclear sites. The latter choice won't end Iran's regime or its nuclear program. It will, however, draw the United States into another war that would bolster terrorism and doom our efforts in Iraq.
Rather than face that reality, McCain decries a hypothetical Obama sit-down with Ahmadinejad. A McBama approach would grasp that negotiations are no panacea. But it would recognize that talks without preconditions are necessary to explore whether Iran can be drawn back into the community of nations.
We don't know - as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently noted - whether the United States retains enough diplomatic, economic and military leverage to influence Iranian behavior. However, Ahmadinejad is not Iran's most senior leader, nor does he control foreign policy. Moreover, he is a leader who thrives on confrontation with the West, and would likely be weakened if U.S.-Iranian tensions were reduced.
There are signs some Iranian leaders are still interested in a detente that would lift sanctions, and allow Iran's oil and gas reserves to be fully developed. For that to happen, Iran would have to revise its policies in the Middle East, including its stance toward Israel. Such crucial questions could be explored way below presidential pay grade - by mid-level diplomats or a special envoy.
Candidate McBama would lay all that out to the U.S. public - from the failed Bush policy to the potential security benefits of unconditional talks. He would drop the talk of "personal diplomacy" and zoom in on America's strategic interests. He would neither be naive about talks nor rigid about refusing them.
Is either candidate capable of playing a McBama role?