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Pakistan Will Now Become McCain's Next Flip-Flop

Pakistan is a nation on the verge -- you could call it a nuclear version of AIG. McCain will be forced to reconfigure his position.
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Like the economists who pleaded until hoarse about a coming financial meltdown, foreign policy types have been doing the same with regard to the situation in Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan is a nation on the verge. You could call it a nuclear version of AIG.

When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, went to Pakistan last week, it was clear that relations between the militaries of Pakistan and the United States were more strained than they had ever been. As it stood, reports indicated that Pakistani troops had recently fired on American forces during a cross-border raid. The hostility between those on both sides of the border was palpable.

That situation has now worsened with scores dead in Saturday night's Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad--an event that prompted conservative MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan to echo what others have previously said by calling Pakistan "the most dangerous country on earth." The reality is that the United States now faces a more precarious relationship with a nuclear-armed, quasi-ally, that houses hordes of violent extremists in its largely ungoverned western provinces.

Strikingly, between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, one of the two has been right on the mark from the beginning--though many heavily criticized him for his stance. The other has been devastatingly wrong, choosing to make Pakistan (and Afghanistan) a low U.S. foreign policy priority, despite the troubling indicators. That senator, John McCain, will now be forced by events to alter his position on Pakistan to come more in line with that of Barack Obama.

This has the potential to become the foreign-policy equivalent of McCain's "fundamentals-of-our-economy-are-strong" moment. When McCain made that remark, his economic ignorance betrayed him and he was forced by unraveling events to completely reverse his stand within a matter of hours. It's about to happen again, though perhaps on a slightly longer timeline. Here's why:

While John McCain has been unfailingly obsessed with the "surge" in Iraq, Barack Obama has always seemed to understand that Pakistan represented the greater threat to the United States than Iraq. In fact, Obama has made this a central theme--often making remarks like the one he made earlier this month:

Barack Obama said a few moments ago that Bush and John McCain don't understand that the central front in the war on terror is not in Iraq but in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A pretty basic statement, but in contrast to McCain, it's what Obama has been saying for over a year--when he assumed a much more aggressive stance:

In a strikingly bold speech about terrorism Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama called not only for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but a redeployment of troops into Afghanistan and even Pakistan -- with or without the permission of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

"I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges," Obama said, "but let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. 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 Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

That last sentence went global--with news organizations around the world gasping at Obama's proposition. But the sentence wasn't really the crux of Obama's proposed strategy in the region:

One of the ways he hopes to achieve this is by pointing out the inherent flaws in the complicated U.S.-Pakistan relationship, an uneasy alliance based in part on U.S. fears of an Islamist government that might replace Musharraf. But Obama proposed in his speech a more aggressive stance with that nuclear nation, making the "hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan."

Additionally Obama called for at least two additional brigades to redeploy to Afghanistan to re-enforce U.S. counterterrorism operations and support NATO's efforts against the Taliban. This would be accompanied by political and economic efforts, Obama said, pledging to increase nonmilitary U.S. aid to Afghanistan by a whopping $1 billion.

The shift from Iraq to Afghanistan and possibly even Pakistan is one of five elements he called for in his speech.

But while Obama has promised to make Pakistan a central focus of his of his foreign policy efforts, McCain has continually laughed him off, choosing instead to call Obama "confused" and "inexperienced":

"Will the next president have the experience, the judgment experience informs and the strength of purpose to respond to each of these developments in ways that strengthen our security and advance the global progress of our ideals?" McCain asked. "Or will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan, and sitting down without preconditions or clear purpose with enemies who support terrorists and are intent on destabilizing the world by acquiring nuclear weapons?"

And even there, McCain misconstrued Obama's statement about Pakistan. But that careless disregard for both the truth and the situation in Pakistan was not lost on others who saw the necessity of endorsing an aggressive stance with that country. Joe Klein of TIME Magazine responded:

McCain's loose, inaccurate talk continues a sad pattern he has shown on national security matters, particularly with regard to Iraq, where he is a loose cannon, firing off hot-button words like "victory" and "surrender"--words that his hero General David Petraeus has never and would never use. As it now stands, McCain believes that Iraq, where 150,000 U.S. troops are chasing after 3,500 Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia terrorists, is the "central front" in the war against terrorism--and he is on the record opposed to taking military action against the real Al Qaeda, which is actively working to destabilize Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and may be planning the next 9/11 in the mountains of Waziristan.

It's no surprise then, that, in 2003, McCain was the same guy who proposed "muddling through" Afghanistan as the most prudent course of action. It's just not his focus. He wants to fight the War on Terror in Iraq and, as of yet, no facts to the contrary have been able to drag McCain away from his increasingly misguided focus. And to me, that's a pretty weak stance when it comes to fighting terror.

Christopher Hitchens summed it up best for Slate last Monday:

Pakistan is the problem. And Barack Obama seems to be the only candidate willing to face it.

Unfortunately for McCain, as events like the Marriott bombing, the cross-border incidents, and the influence of the Taliban increase--and as we creep closer to mission failure in neighboring Afghanistan--he will be forced to reconfigure his position on Pakistan. He will flip-flop. He will suddenly say that Pakistan is a U.S. national security priority. And he will fall in line with Barack Obama's way of seeing the situation. Again.

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