Barack Obama has been concentrating on establishing his credentials on foreign policy. Today he was scheduled to make a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, with portions released earlier in the day. The most controversial aspect of Obama’s speech regarded going after al Qaeda in Pakistan:
They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qa’eda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.
This raises a number of questions with regards to foreign policy, with regards to the conservative reaction, and with regards to how this might affect the race. Taking any action inside a sovereign nation is problematic. While the situations were admittedly quite different, it is interesting, considering all the conservative attacks on Obama today, that it was conservatives who backed such action in past situations. It was Richard Nixon who extended the Vietnam war by invading Cambodia. George Bush’s invasion of Iraq was also an act of preemptive war against a sovereign country. The usual Republican response would be that Bush was justified because Saddam violated the U.N. sanctions. This might provide justification for the United Nations to recommend action, but provides no justification for the United States to act unilaterally.
The major difference between the situations in Cambodia and Iraq as opposed to Pakistan is that Musharraf is considered an ally. Wee are also faced with the reality that we are not going to be successful in destroying al Qaeda without changing policies in allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Obama is being cautious here , limiting possible action to a very specific situation and stipulating cases where Musharraf will not act. It might be a very smart move for Obama to make such a statement now, when it doesn’t have the same weight as a statement coming from a sitting President, as opposed to after taking office. This puts Musharraf on notice that he cannot allow al Qaeda to operate in his country, possibly motivating him to take action which he might not otherwise take should Obama be elected.
This may also be a good move politically for Obama. Hillary Clinton has been a strong front runner and she can not be stopped without shaking up the race. Proposals such as this help Obama to dominate the news, placing him on a level comparable to Clinton’s and reducing her advantage as a front runner. While Clinton has more experience in Washington, it is Obama who has come up with a new approach. Obama has already gained an advantage over Clinton on the question of negotiations, placing Clinton in the position of attacking Obama for positions she had expressed in the past. This statement from Obama undermines Clinton’s attempts to give the impression of being stronger on defense, while appealing to opponents of the Iraq war who see it as a distraction from what should really be done to fight terrorism.
The speech may open many questions but the response does demonstrate one thing. It is much easier to be a conservative blogger than a liberal blogger. Obama’s speech leaves me with the need to examine his views closely and think about the important questions he raised. In contrast, all conservative bloggers need to know is that the speech came from a Democrat to find reason to attack.
It is ironic that the Republicans, who claim to be the hawks on the “war on terror” are now attacking Obama, who has effectively outflanked them. But then, maybe it isn’t so ironic after all considering how it has actually been Republicans who have resisted meaningful action against terrorism for years.
It was Democrats who first raised the issue of terrorism. John Kerry discussed the problem in his book, The New War, in 1998. Bill Clinton attempted to fight al Qaeda, but was blocked by a Republican Congress who failed to take the threat seriously, and accused Clinton of “wagging the dog.” Republican weakness on fighting terrorism worsened during the first several months of the Bush administration. The Bush administration was so convinced that a non-government organization could not present a serious threat to the United States that they ignored the plans to fight al Qaeda passed down from the Clinton administration, and even lied about receiving them.
The most critical mistake was when George Bush ignored the daily presidential briefing which warned of al Qaeda’s plans. We’ve subsequently learned that the 9/11 terrorists were either on government watch lists, or were using the same address or frequent flier numbers as those who were. A meaningful attempt to respond to the intelligence might have prevented the 9/11 attack. At very least George Bush should have tried. He should have also tried to do more to actually defend the country rather than attacking Iraq, which had no connection to 9/11. When John Kerry confronted George Bush defending the country against terrorism in the 2004 debates, Bush opposed Kerry’s recommendations, claiming they would be too expensive. It was also George Bush who failed to capture bin Laden when we had an excellent chance at Tora Bora.
With years of failure coming from the Republicans, new ideas are needed. Statements such as those in today’s speech help establish Obama as a candidate who might have the new ideas we need.