Disputes over tactics such as to whom to talk and when in foreign policy miss the entire point of "McNeoCon" foreign policy. It is not that they do not believe that diplomacy and negotiations might be of benefit; they do not want them to work, and are horrified at the thought they might because it removes an occasion for regime change. Their goal, charitably stated, is a unipolar "pax Americana" world in which the US writ can run large and unimpeded.
Diplomacy and, heaven-forbid, successful negotiations is a hurdle on that road. McNeoCons see only insurgency or military force as useful tools. They paint a picture of a world with multiple little "Americas" without regard to how and whether it is achievable. As former Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman J. William Fulbright noted in The Arrogance of Power, virtually no country has ever invaded another except for what it believed was the noblest of purposes.
Do not be fooled by McNeoCon protestations. When they say, "we negotiate"...they add, "the other side knows what it needs to do". What they "need to do" is relinquish all their cards (aka, surrender), and then McNeoCons will be happy to talk.
McNeoCons call it regime change. History calls it empire.
Unless this essential fact of McCain's -- who has assumed the NeoCon mantle -- foreign policy perspective is understood, critics will have missed the point: the issue is not tactical, it is one of world view.
Illustrations may help:
1. Defense Secretary Robert Gates mused that the administration missed a chance to engage Iran in 2005, at a time when it seemed to be interested in using a joint interest in a contained Taliban as a springboard to improve relations. He is wrong. The Bush administration did not want improved relations with Iran; they wanted regime change, and improving relations was viewed as a step backwards toward that goal.
2. The substitution of Paul Bremer as the "viceroy" of Iraq for General Jake Garner and Bremer's subsequent decisions to disband the Iraq army and issue a blanket de-Baathification order is seen now as one of many examples of incompetence. It was not. The Bush administration did not want a regime not beholden to itself. Iraq was viewed as a prize, and they had their guy, Adnan Chalabi, poised to seize power. See, e.g., Woodward's "State of Denial" on Rumsfeld's refusal to stop the Bremer orders because the matter had already been decided elsewhere -- aka, Dick Cheney.
3. I was in the Middle East a year ago, and had the opportunity to meet with both current and top officials of Israeli and Arab governments. It was very clear then, and clear now, that a deal with Syria is possible. After all, the countries were close to an agreement some years ago when Hafez al-Assad (the father of the current President) was still alive. Some minor disagreements on where boundaries should be drawn and an important issue of water rights were unresolved.
The Bush administration appointed Elliott Abrams (not even distantly related to me), who had been convicted for lying during the Iran-Contra scandal, to a post that requires no Senate approval, "Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy" and is, according to a well-placed Senate Republican, highly active in scuttling any dialogue that might lead to a peaceful settlement. Why? For one, Elliott believes in Israeli hegemony over the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. (He may have family that settled the West Bank). And, like the other McNeoCons, he does not want a deal with Syria, he wants regime change.
Let us analyze this last example further. During the Cold War Henry Kissinger used dictator-thug-terrorist-mass murderer, HIV-disseminator Ceacescu, the Romanian Communist boss, to arrange an opening to China, then ruled by mass-murderer, US-troop-killer-supplier, insurgency supporter, nuclear-weapon brandishing Mao Zedong and Chou En-Lai. By remarking to the world press that China could survive a nuclear war because of its vast population (even losing 70%, they would be left with 300 million -- in those days), Mao was viewed as reckless, willing to endure mass deaths for its ideology to triumph. Sound familiar enough?
But, Kissinger was "playing China-card". By opening dialogue with China, Kissinger put pressure on the Soviet Union who both competed with China as a rival for world leadership in the Communist movement, and needed China as an ally as a bulwark against the West. The US opening reversed more than 2 decades of hiding our heads in the sand, pretending 1 billion people did not exist. Although there was not overnight success, the US exacerbated the already-existing estrangement between these two giants, and helped the cold war eventually to wind down.
Why not, therefore, play "Syria-card" in the Middle East? Because Sunnis consider the Syrian ruling class's Alawi sect not to be true Muslims (just like Evangelicals in the US do not consider Catholics to be Christians), they have been drawn to Iran because recognition as Muslims by Iranian Shia provides them religious legitimacy. Syria is also a conduit for aid to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Nationalism, however, is another strong current in Syrian political life, and return of the Golan Heights from Israel is a sine qua non for that to be fully realized. With the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty with Israel, what then would become of Syria's Iranian alliance?
This would, of course, have to be considered a pipedream were it not for two facts, those pesky things that just get in the way of the McNeoCons. The first is that all sides believed a deal with Syria is indeed possible. The second is that, as stated above, Syria and Israel were within minor border adjustments and agreement on water rights for such a deal before the Bushies came to power.
McNeocons do not want such a deal with Syria. They did not want to make progress with Iran. They did not want a post-Saddam Iraq they did not control. They did not want the inspectors to finish their jobs in 2003 and find no WMD, because that would have removed the pretext for war...so they aborted the inspection process. They want regime change.
So, when McCain asks what Obama would talk to Ahmadinejad about, he is revealing not only a total misunderstanding of what diplomacy is all about, but an opposition to a deal with Iran that keeps them non-nuclear, but without regime change.
Or, to put it another way, McNeoCons prefer no deal keeping Iran non-nuclear, so that Iranian pursuit of nuclear development (weapons or not) provides the occasion for military action and regime change.
The stakes in this election are much greater than the verbal skirmishes suggest.