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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Foreign policy, not surprisingly this election, is a hot issue on a campaign trail. Among the questions: should the next American president meet with Cuba's president? Should he or she open a dialogue with Iran?

Republican John McCain has accused Democratic Senator Barack Obama of being reckless and naïve for suggesting unconditional talks with what he calls rogue regimes. Obama and his supporters are firing back, saying McCain is sounding a lot like George Bush. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Bush's speech before the Israeli Knesset is still resonating on the campaign trail.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.

KELEMEN: He called it the false comfort of appeasement. Barack Obama says he has a big argument with President Bush and John McCain about this, and he expects this to remain an issue in the coming months. He's been on record saying he'd be willing to talk, without preconditions, with the leaders of countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba.

At a synagogue in Florida yesterday, he fine-tuned that message, calling only for tough, direct diplomacy with Iran and not saying he would be personally involved.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): What I have said is that I would initiate direct diplomacy with Iran, and the reason is, I believe that the policy of not talking to our enemies has not worked. It's a very practical assessment.

KELEMEN: An assessment he said Israel has made as it indirectly talks with Syria and with Hamas.

Obama's aides say he's simply trying to push the principle of diplomacy, and they think this will help in the polls by showing he'll have a different foreign-policy approach than John McCain. McCain accuses Obama of being reckless and inexperienced.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Senator Obama wants to sit down in face-to-face, unconditional negotiations with the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, whose country, under his leadership, is sending explosive devices into Iraq from Iran, killing young Americans.

I think it displays a degree of naïveté and clearly someone who's not prepared to be president of the United States.

KELEMEN: A trouble for McCain is that a video has been making the rounds of one of his supporters, former Secretary of State James Baker, saying diplomacy involves talking to enemies and he doesn't see that as appeasement.

The Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, is also picking up on this theme as he tries to stay neutral in the race between Obama and Hillary Clinton but step up attacks on McCain.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): The worst nightmare for a regime that thrives on isolation and tension is an America ready, willing and able to engage. Since when has talking with another nation removed the word no from our vocabulary?

KELEMEN: Biden reminded the crowd at the Center for American Progress this week, that the Bush administration negotiated with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and President Bush sent a dear-Mister-Chairman letter to North Korea's leader to try to push ahead nuclear-disarmament talks.

Sen. BIDEN: If you're going to have a list of the top 10 terrorists in the world and those who sponsor it, it'd be awful hard to have kept Gadhafi or Kim Jung Il off that list. The president was right to engage Libya. The president was correct to engage North Korea. Just like President Nixon and Reagan were right to engage the Chinese and the Soviets.

KELEMEN: Republicans have also been speaking out on the issue. Senator Arlen Specter was among those encouraging Defense Secretary Robert Gates, this week, to engage Iran.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): If we do not have dialogue with Iran, at least in one man's opinion, we're missing a great opportunity to avoid a future conflict.

KELEMEN: Gates said historians will have to decide whether the Bush administration already missed an opportunity to talk with Iran before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. The defense secretary argued, both at that hearing and before a group of retired diplomats last week, that the U.S. now needs to figure out a way to gain leverage with Iran.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (United States Department of Defense): 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 not feeling that they need anything from us. My own view, just my personal view, would be we ought to look for ways outside of government to open up the channels.

KELEMEN: Op-ed pages and blogs have been filled with diplomatic history lessons for the candidates about when presidents have been successful negotiators and when they've failed. But so far, it's been more politics than diplomatic nuance on the campaign trail. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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