Not long before President Bush delivered a speech to Israel's Knesset last week celebrating that nation's 60th anniversary, the residents of the Jewish state's southern city of Ashkelon received a different sort of greeting.
An Iranian-made Grad model Katyusha rocket crashed into a mall in the city of more than 100,000, wounding four persons while several dozen others were treated for shock.
The missile, launched by the Islamic Jihad group from their safe haven in Hamas-ruled Gaza, served as an interesting counterpoint to Bush's tough talk about terror, which set off a controversy back home.
Bush's speech was noteworthy because it expressed a passionate support for Zionism in a way that only an evangelical Christian such as the 43rd president would find congenial. While some of his predecessors such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton ("Shalom,chaver") have spoken with affection of Israel, it was remarkable to hear a president describe the re-creation of Jewish sovereignty in terms that a religious, as opposed to a secular, Zionist would use.
It's one thing to talk about common values, but quite another to speak of Israel's independence as "the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David -- a homeland for the chosen people Eretz Yisrael," as Bush did.
Bush didn't stop there, but eventually went on to predict what the Middle East would look like 60 years hence, when Israel will be celebrating its 120th anniversary in peace alongside a peaceful and democratic Palestinian state in the midst of a Middle East in which such states will be commonplace, and from which Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas will be banished.
From his lips to God's ears.
Yet the only attention given to this astonishing speech centered on one passage in which he put down talk of negotiations with "terrorists and radicals" as "appeasement."
Sen. Barack Obama, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, treated that sentence as a personal attack, even though he wasn't mentioned in it. Obama has said that he intends to meet with leaders of rogue states, such as Iran and Syria, which Bush has shunned.
"Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power -- including tough, principled and direct diplomacy -- to pressure countries like Iran and Syria," Obama said in a statement.
Democrats quickly realized that by taking offense at this charge, they could engage in a debate with the unpopular incumbent rather than with the Republican whom Obama must face in November, Sen. John McCain. As such, the exchange was scored a win for Obama.
But lost amid the tactical partisan squabble are some more important points than whether or not Bush was thinking of Obama when he said the word "appeasement."
Obama has reiterated his opposition to talking to Hamas, even though he says he would talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who threatens to destroy Israel.
But at the same time that Bush and Obama were drawing lines in the sand about Hamas, representatives of the Israeli government were themselves engaged in negotiations with the group about a cease-fire and the exchange of prisoners via the good offices of Egypt. Given the need to stop the terrorist missile barrage on southern Israel and gain the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, they believe they have little choice but to bargain with these killers.
Also that week, the United States did nothing as Hezbollah terrorists routed the moderate pro-Western Lebanese government and made it clear that that tortured country remained firmly in the grip of allies of Iran.
Combined with the utter contempt with which another pro-democracy Bush speech was received by the leaders of the Arab world, and what you have is an administration whose words are not matched by deeds.
Partisans will say that is merely a reflection of Bush's incompetence, and they won't be entirely wrong given the mistakes made in Iraq. But the president's second term has actually been a lesson in the futility of attempts at diplomacy, such as those that Bush derides and Obama embraces.
On Iran, there has been plenty of tough talk. But in practice, all Bush has done about the growing existential threat that it poses to Israel and the West is ineffective diplomacy in which he has relied on Western European countries that Iran knows will always back down.
As for the administration's effort to push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, though the president's critics blame him for the stalemate, Bush's shunning of Yasser Arafat (unlike Bill Clinton's genuine appeasement of that terrorist) was correct. So was the decision to stand by Israel when it launched counterattacks that defeated Arafat's intifada terror offensive.
Chamberlain or Churchill?
But Bush has painted himself into his own diplomatic corner by banking on the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, in spite of its own bad record on terror and inability to confront Hamas. The president's reward for supporting the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was the creation of a Hamas terror state that gives Iran another beachhead on the Mediterranean. Bush's response has been to pretend it will disappear if Israel is nicer to Abbas. That sounds like the counsel Neville Chamberlain might be giving us today, rather than the wisdom of Bush's hero, Winston Churchill.
So rather than worrying about whether Bush's successor will be an "appeaser," it might be more apt to ask the lame-duck president whether he will himself live up to his rhetoric in his remaining months of office.
Obama's talk of meeting with Ahmadinejad is certainly wrongheaded. But what we must ask is what will he do if, as president, his "tough diplomacy" fails to halt Iran's nuclear drive, as it inevitably will. The question isn't really about who is an "appeaser" today, but whether or not either Obama or McCain will have the will to forcefully confront a regime that must now surely think any American will back down when push comes to shove.
Heart-felt support for Israel is welcome, but while Palestinian missiles continue to fall and with the threat of far worse from Iran in the future, it doesn't matter much what Republicans or Democrats say about terror. It's what they are willing to actually do about it that counts.