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McCain’s foreign policy woes

As Barack Obama earns plaudits around the globe, the Bush administration is embracing the central tenets of Obama’s foreign policy, as voters did long ago, leaving John McCain alone and isolated in an arena he once claimed as his strength.

Majorities of Americans have endorsed Obama’s call for a timetable to bring combat troops home from Iraq since at least early 2007. Gallup recently found 60 percent in support of “set[ting] a timetable for removing troops from Iraq and stick[ing]” to it, while just 35 percent were willing to back McCain’s position and “keep a significant number of troops there until the situation there gets better.”

Iraqis agree. A majority there has long demanded a swift American withdrawal. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki added his voice to the chorus, telling Der Spiegel, “Barack Obama is right when he talks about 16 months … Artificially prolonging the tenure of U.S. troops in Iraq would cause problems.”

President Bush himself yanked the rug out from under McCain, who brands any timetable “surrender,” by reversing his own position and agreeing with the Iraqis on a “general time horizon” for withdrawal. Always linguistically agile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will no doubt find a way to define a “time horizon” as something other than a “timetable,” but such verbal hairsplitting strains credulity.

President Bush also tacitly endorsed Obama’s approach to Iran, where for eight years the administration has steadfastly pursued a policy of isolation, to zero effect. A nuclear Iran constitutes a mortal danger, yet that nation is substantially closer to having deliverable nuclear weapons today than it was when Bush took office. No clearer portrait of failure is available, yet John McCain has held fast to the old Bush policy.

Let no one say, however, that the Bush administration is incapable of learning — eventually.

When Bush took office, North Korea was not building nuclear weapons. The president’s policy led Kim Jong-il not only to build, but to actually explode a nuclear device. The resulting reassessment led to a presidential 180, as Bush began to engage North Korea. The result: North Korea negotiated the beginning of the end of its nuclear ambitions.

Transferring insights from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East, Bush dispatched Ambassador Nick Burns to begin talks with Iran and even hinted at restoring low-level diplomatic relations with Tehran — a move not seriously contemplated by any president since about Day 120 of “America Held Hostage.”

Until Bush’s radical reversal, John McCain had been equally adamant in refusing engagement with Iran, preferring a demonstrably failed policy, refusing even to try an approach that had succeeded with China, the former Soviet Union and North Korea.

Bush’s former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton was, for once, dead-on. “Even if this [the talks] is a one-time-only event in the Bush administration,” he said, “it legitimizes the Obama administration to do the same thing. It undercuts McCain, and Republicans on the Hill.” John McCain — alone again, naturally.

Americans clearly prefer engagement over isolation — a 2006 World Public Opinion poll found 82 percent of Americans wanting to talk to countries the U.S. opposes, while just 16 percent favored isolation as a form of pressure. When it came to Iranian nukes specifically, views divided more evenly, but a narrow majority favored talks with Tehran absent any preconditions. More recently, 59 percent of Americans told Gallup it was a good idea for the president of the United States to meet with Iran’s abhorrent president.

By sticking his toe into the mainstream of American public opinion on national security, and effectively acquiescing to the policy prescriptions Obama has advocated, George Bush has left John McCain out in the cold, in the midst of a very hot summer.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.