Commentary Magazine

Obama's Damage

With his first entry in an otherwise blank foreign policy ledger, Barack Obama sabotaged America’s operational relationship with Pakistan. On August 1, 2007, during a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Senator Obama said of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan:

There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

The statement was swiftly criticized by prominent Republicans and Democrats as inept and harmful to American interests. (It was actually Senator Joe Biden who leveled the most insightful charge at Obama, saying, "The last thing you want to do is telegraph to the folks in Pakistan plans that threaten their sovereignty.")

Yet that is precisely what Senator Obama managed to do. The ham-handed bellicosity embodied in his threat put Islamabad on notice of potential border breaches nearly a year before any such manned operations began. Two days after Obama’s pronouncement, Pakistanis protested, chanting anti-American slogans, holding banners that read "Death to Obama," and burning American flags in the streets. The response from Pakistani leadership was unanimous. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said, "These are serious matters and should not be used for point-scoring. Political candidates and commentators should show responsibility." Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khusheed Kasuri told the AP, "It’s a very irresponsible statement, that’s all I can say. As the election campaign in America is heating up we would not like American candidates to fight their elections and contest elections at our expense." And Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim noted that "those who make such statements are not aware of our contribution" in the War on Terror.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ever-burdened with balancing American requests against Pakistani resentment simply said Pakistan was "fully capable" of eradicating terrorists within its own borders and needed no outside help. The fallout in Pakistan was messy enough to require reassurance from the White House. According to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, George W. Bush told Musharraf by phone that, "recent statements emanating from the U.S. regarding possible U.S. action inside Pakistani territory" were "unsavory and often prompted by political considerations in an environment of electioneering."

When the primary candidate who made the original vow became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, the pushback in Pakistan took more pragmatic shape. Speaking at the time of Senator Obama’s triumph over Hillary Clinton, Ibrar Ahmad, a lecturer at the Government College in Multan, said, "Obama has threatened attacks against us even before becoming the president, and he will be more dangerous compared to Bush," while President Gen. Musharraf responded by saying that Obama must change course on Pakistan. "If he (Obama) becomes president of the U.S., he will get more information on this region, and I think he’ll have a more realistic approach."

Nor were Pakistani fears ameliorated by the fact that Senator Obama refused to back down from his statement of August 1, 2007. In fact, through out his primary and general election campaigns he has scarcely missed an opportunity to reiterate his position during speeches and interviews, using language nearly identical to the original threat of action.

Meanwhile, as Senator Obama continued to broadcast his muscular intentions, the White House was quietly weighing the option of using ground troops in limited numbers inside Pakistan. This past July, the argument within the administration had been decided and President Bush secretly approved orders to allow U.S. operations against Pakistani targets without getting the approval of Islamabad. However, as a testament to the care with which the administration had approached the issue, one senior official reported that a top Pakistani official had "privately assented to the general concept."

While the American official never identified the specific Pakistani partner, President Bush hosted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at the White House that same month and afterward Gilani described their talk as "excellent." Interestingly, Gilani met with Senator Obama the next day and after perfunctorily labeling the meeting as positive, said, "Since [Obama] does not want to publicize the meeting so close to the election, we are not talking about it." The presumptive Democratic nominee’s imposing a gag order on the Pakistani prime minister is unusual. After all, Gilani spoke with John McCain by phone that week as well and as Bloomberg News reported days later,

In response to a question on whether he thought Americans understood Pakistan, Gilani said McCain was "familiar with the situation.

He did not comment on Obama.

What did Senator Obama not want revealed?

While Gilani rated his meeting with the George W. Bush as excellent, and praised John McCain’s understanding of Pakistan, it is reasonable to surmise that things went less smoothly with Barack Obama. For after nearly a year of Senator Obama’s threatening American military action inside Pakistan and inciting the Pakistani street, that country’s prime minister came face-to-face with Obama at the very time that such attacks had been delicately and secretly agreed upon by American and Pakistani officials. To say that Senator Obama’s high profile threats could not have helped the situation is an understatement. One suspects Gilani didn’t use the opportunity to compliment the Senator on his autobiographical achievements.

Now, as U.S. helicopters drop American troops into South Waziristan to do battle with terrorists, and American soldiers engage in firefights across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, we see a Pakistani response that’s disastrous. Feeling immense pressure from an enraged public, the Pakistani military has been ordered to "retaliate and kill" Americans "invading" their country. In President Zardari’s first speech before Parliament, his vow to "not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism," was met with thunderous approval. Hours later, when terrorists exploded a truck bomb at the Islamabad Marriott last killing 53 people, Zardari’s radio broadcast condemnation included a further denouncing of foreign military operations on Pakistani soil.

To be sure, American raids against militants inside Pakistan would have met formidable Pakistani opposition regardless of how they were introduced. The country is an Islamist tinderbox in which even the most pro-Western individuals are forced to play along with the most dangerous terrorists in the world. However, the advance-announcement and continued rehearsal of a potential American president’s intention to breach an ostensible ally’s borders represents a soft-power blunder of incalculable proportion. Through the megaphone of Obama’s global celebrity, the Pakistani population was subject to a year-long publicity campaign for the coming American assault.

This is not to say Obama was wrong in his insistence on U.S. action without Islamabad’s permission. He may well have been right before a lot of other important people. History might reveal President Bush’s Pakistani soft-shoe as the cowardly coddling of a dictator. But Bush did understand the need to finesse his ties to Musharraf and the importance of discretion in America’s relationship with Pakistan. Through his short cut to national security bona fides, Senator Obama became the bull in the global China shop-smashing a frangible and valuable compact. In hindsight, we know Obama did not do much damage to his campaign, but the record shows how one ill-conceived remark and the follow-up efforts to legitimize it can take their toll on American interests abroad.

Apparently, Senator Obama is not done busting up the joint. In the first debate of the general presidential election last Friday, John McCain said of Obama’s decision to let the cat out of the bag, "Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud." Obama once again decided to reaffirm his commitment to the original remarks. A headline in the next day’s Pakistan Dawn read, "Obama breathes fire, McCain shows restraint over Pakistan."

Senator McCain also said Friday, "If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government." A hard task, made demonstrably harder by the junior senator from Illinois.

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