By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, May 15 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush stirred up the campaign to replace him by suggesting on Thursday that Democratic front-runner Barack Obama's pledge to talk to Iran's leader amounted to "the false comfort of appeasement."
Bush, on a visit to Israel to mark its 60th anniversary, became involved in presidential politics at home just as the man he has endorsed as his successor, Republican John McCain, was seeking to distance himself from the unpopular president in many ways.
But Bush and McCain are of the same mind on Iran. Both frequently criticize Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his threats against Israel and they believe he must be stopped from developing a nuclear weapon, a goal Iran denies.
They are at odds with Obama, who has held firm to a position that if elected in November, he would be willing to meet with leaders of hostile nations like Iran, Syria and Cuba, believing the United States has blundered in the past by refusing to talk to them.
"Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush said, without mentioning Obama's name.
"We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history," he said.
The White House said Bush was not specifically referring to Obama but rather all those who hold that position.
Obama said in response to Bush: "It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence to launch a false political attack."
"It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel," he said.
"George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president's extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel," he said.
Iran has been a central issue in the presidential campaign, with McCain frequently accusing Tehran of sending explosive devices into Iraq used to kill U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
White House spokesman Dana Perino insisted Bush did not specifically mean to target Obama, saying "there are many who have suggested these types of negotiations with people that President Bush thinks we should not talk to."
"I understand when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you -- that is not always true and it is not true in this case," she said.
A prominent McCain backer, Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, said Bush "got it exactly right today" by rejecting the idea that "if only we were to sit down and negotiate with these killers they would cease to threaten us." He did not mention Obama in a statement. (Writing by Steve Holland; editing by David Wiessler)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/