McCain Lacks Clear Vision On Pakistan; Obama Ready To Engage

We need a change in leadership that recognizes the War on Terror is more than a military conflict.
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On Saturday when a suicide truck bomb exploded at the Marriot hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, it was a harsh reminder of where the central front in the War on Terror is. The Pakistanis and the Afghans are all too aware of the Taliban's rebuilding in the Tribal lands that blur the border between the two countries. The border became a porous emergence haven for the terrorist group, but has remained a solid wall for American troops. This battle over sovereignty and jurisdiction has slowed the capture of Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives, possibly including Osama Bin Laden. With the American election a few weeks away, each candidate's stance on Pakistan reveals critical insight into how they view America's best interest in the War on Terror.


Much has been written in the past year about the situation in Pakistan. Time provided a dire warning last November when they showed the powerful resurgence in Pakistan's Tribal lands. What has followed is a cacophony of reports about increased tension and confrontation on the border between terrorists, the Pakistan's military, and American forces. All of this begs the question: Should the United States respect the territory of the Pakistani people? Christopher Hitchens explored the background behind the Pakistan problem in Slate, his point is clear: Pakistan has long been ignored as a safe-haven for serious terrorist activity that hampers the war effort.

Recently, there were murmurs that the administration would seek the capture of Osama bin Laden as an October surprise, one that would benefit John McCain politically. The administration began quietly authorizing incursions into Pakistan to hunt for the operatives of terror. The mission is to search for Al-Qaeda leadership. NPR has the most detailed account of the administrations decision. In response, Pakistan has ordered its military to fire on U.S. incursions into their country. CNN reports Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has been clear, U.S. incursions will not be tolerated. The capture of the notorious Bin Laden would be a major victory in the war, but the violation of Pakistan's border represents a major strategic shift and has startling implications.

The administration's quiet move across the border demonstrates actual strategic recognition of how the war must be won, but the move has caused increased controversy. Recent academic work in political philosophy continues to think on the problem of globalization and national borders. In the same force that brings cheap goods to Wal-Mart and allowed many American's to live well, also saw Main Streets and Industrial Loops boxed up and shipped around the world. What is little talked about in this process is the growing influence of economic borders over political borders. In their project Empire (notable as an academic and trade success), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri examine the loss of political borders. The permeability of our own country on September 11 is evidence that national borders are ill protected, ill conceived, and increasingly less relevant in the world today. This is in part, why American's harbor such fear over the border with Mexico. What this all means is that the next President will be forced to confront the War from a different worldview then President Bush. It requires recognition that the War on Terror cannot be fought from border to border and country to country. Each candidate has already offered ample evidence of how they would prosecute the war.

John McCain.
Victory, winning the war, country first: These claims have dominated McCain's foreign policy positions. However, they illustrate a concentration on the wrong war on the wrong front. The urge to bring the troops home with honor is an important and powerful impulse. The belief that such an objective will happen anytime soon has been undercut by recent news of instability in the Surge-situation in Iraq. This illustrates that McCain's fascination with the front in Iraq is dead wrong. McCain's policy position on Iraq emphasizes the need for success in Iraq. He argues "It would be a grave mistake to leave before Al-Qaeda in Iraq is defeated and before a competent, trained, and capable Iraqi security force is in place and operating effectively." His view on national security places Iraq as a pivotal front in the War on Terror. He also highlights the front in Afghanistan, despite the fact he often has let it take second fiddle to Iraq. The reality is we have made a mess of the political situation in Iraq and left our men and women in uniform to clean up for strategic and political mistakes by the Bush Administration. The sad reality is Iraq has always been a diversion. Its centrality to McCain's foreign policy reveals two strategic flaws in his policy: The Importance of borders and fighting wars in-country and an adherence to Bush's "axis of evil" refuses to recognize the ability of the Taliban to move beyond Afghanistan and Iraq faster than America can rebuild a nation Bush's war has destabilized.

The clearest example of McCain's out of touch foreign policy is that lack of a demonstrated position on the Taliban or Al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan. Saying militant Islamic extremists is code for, we don't need to specify who or where the 9/11 attackers are. On his website, National Security and Homeland Security give no space to the breeding ground of America's enemy--Pakistan. McCain has made comments from time to time on the issue to Pakistan. He does demonstrate on a few occasions an important recognition of the danger of American interference, via force, in Pakistan's political process. He said as much in August 2007 (You can find the video here). Ironically, The Huffinton Post also notes that McCain was clearly opposed to unauthorized aggression into Pakistan, arguing "bombing Pakistan without their permission" would be a mistake. This of course came before the President authorized aggression across the border.

The biggest failure of McCain's policy towards Pakistan and the War on Terror surrounds the issue of temperament and bluster. By his own account, McCain views the war on terror as a conflict that is waged using traditional military techniques. This aggression embraces the Neo-Con loathing of diplomacy as soft and seems to want to continue the spreading of our military men and women across broad conflicts with few goals and even less support. Further, McCain continues to utilize America's real enemies as a political attack. The republican convention was a shameful sham of a party convention. Fear mongering became the soup du jour, instead of policies to keep America safe. In place of enumerating their folly here, Keith Olbermann's special comment does an impressive job. Chief among them was McCain's claim before the convention that he knows how to capture Bin laden. McCain argues: "We will do it. I know how to do it." However, without a clear policy towards Pakistan's tribal lands, how can he? Thus, as Olbermann notes, it is either an empty claim, full of sound a fury signifying nothing or it is a traitorous act. Olbermann's crescendo is:

But if that person not only refused to go to responsible authorities in government and advise them of this plan to catch bin Laden, but further announced he would not even begin to enact this secret plan to corral the world's most hated man until the end of next January.

What would be your description of such an individual, Senator? Charlatan? Do-nothing? Opportunist? Sen. McCain, if you have, if you have had a means of capturing Osama bin Laden, and you do not immediately inform some responsible authority of the full scope of that plan, you are to some degree great or small aiding and abetting Osama bin Laden.

This sense of confusion emphasizes McCain's lack of grounding in the War on terror.

Barack Obama.
Barack Obama's largest engagement with the issue of Pakistan created controversy in August 2007 with his "Pakistan Speech." Obama has long argued he "would go after high-value Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan if the country's president was not willing to act." Not surprisingly he received fire from the left and the right. It seemed startlingly pro-war to the left and startlingly opposed to Iraq to the right. A closer examination of Obama's Pakistan stance reveals two clear advantages over McCain in fighting the War on Terror. First, he recognizes the conflict goes beyond borders. Obama has demonstrated a clear nuance around the real danger of those behind the attacks of 9/11. Second, Obama offers alternatives to the military aggression Bush has recently pursued into Pakistani territory.

Oddly enough, one of the best sources for Obama's strategic lead on Pakistan comes from his interview with Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly argued "You're not going to invade Pakistan, senator, if you're president. You're not going to send ground troops in there. You know it." Again, shortly before Bush authorized such force. Obama's response is telling. The exchange went as follows:

OBAMA: "For example, we are providing them military aid without having enough strings attached. So they're using the military aid that we use to Pakistan, they're preparing for a war against India.

O'REILLY: So you're going to pull it out and let the Islamic fundamentalists take them over?

OBAMA: No, no, no, no. What we say is, look, we're going to provide them with additional military support targeted at terrorists, and we're going to help build their democracy and provide...

O'REILLY: We're doing that now. Negroponte's over there, and he's doing that.

OBAMA: That is not what we've been doing, Bill. We've wasted $10 billion with Musharraf without holding him accountable for knocking out those safe havens.

O'Reilly then lambastes Obama's response, reducing it to just more ineffective diplomacy before it has even been attempted. The exchange demonstrates a real recognition of the importance of American dollars to Pakistan. We have leverage to encourage Pakistan to stand up to terror, without applying pressure on those leverage points the war's true objectives go unanswered.

Obama's plan to defeat terrorism recognizes the role of Pakistan from the very start. His plan states "Al Qaeda has built a stronghold in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. Terror groups affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda are flourishing around the world. Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and has a plan to responsibly end the war in Iraq so that we can focus on the right battlefield--Afghanistan and Pakistan." He argues for both military and diplomatic solutions with Pakistan. In doing so he offers a strategy for success that avoids McCain's bluster and instability on the wrong battlefield.

In sum, Barack Obama offers a way to engage Pakistan via diplomacy. Importantly, this recognizes both what the real conflicts in the war are and how to engage our enemies responsibly. It is also smart enough to recognize the lessening of political borders that exist in our world today. Yet, what neither candidate has given adequate time to is the fact that our soldiers need more from our government. Gear and guns alone will not win the War on Terror. It has been long understood and little discussed that the war will be won by freezing bank accounts along with the bang of a gun. The war is waged on websites as well as with weapons caches. In 2004 John Kerry was ridiculed for suggesting a criminal prosecution approach to terrorism. However, the traditional war tactics and outmoded ideology that George W. Bush and John McCain subscribe to only see war from border to border. As our borders slowly slip away, existing only as remnants of our modern past, economic borders will begin to dominate our contemporary world. We need a change in leadership that recognizes the War on Terror is more than a military conflict; it is a paradoxical conflict that is written in complex diplomacy as much as it is written in detonations by the military complex. One leader has shown adequate grasp on how to win the War on Terror, that leader is Barack Obama.

This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. If you have a policy expertise and would like to participate, please see Calling All Policy Gurus.

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