Is Barack Obama a liberal hawk or a Democratic dove? The freshman Illinois senator doesn't seem to have made up his mind yet.
At the last Democratic debate Obama was a peacemaker, pledging summits with Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea in his first year as president -- a stance Hillary Clinton derided as "irresponsible and naive." Then at the Wilson Center he was a terror-fighter, delivering a tough (by the standards of his party) speech pledging to pursue al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan whether the government in Islamabad gives us permission or not:
"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."Call it operation "shock and audacity." A few prominent liberal bloggers were predictably incensed, with Jerome Armstrong going so far to accuse Obama of being a convert to the "Bush-Cheney Doctrine."
More surprisingly, some conservatives also pounced. John Podhoretz scoffed, "[E]very serious person knows the United States won't invade Pakistan." Peter Brookes, writing in the New York Post, called Obama's comments a "blunder," arguing such a move would destabilize Musharraf's moderately cooperative government and risk plunging nuclear-armed Pakistan into radical Islamic rule.
"The last thing we need is for Islamabad to fall to the extremists," Brookes wrote. "That would exacerbate the problem of those terrorist safe havens that Obama apparently thinks he could invade."
Perhaps chastened by this bipartisan reaction, Obama reverted yesterday to dovish form, telling the Associated Press that he would not use nuclear weapons to fight terrorism "in any circumstance," first with the qualifier "involving civilians" and then saying "scratch that" to all caveats. "There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons," the senator concluded. "That's not on the table."
Don't try to piece together Obama's logic in foreswearing the use of nuclear weapons while threatening an unauthorized incursion into a nuclear-armed country. These statements have less to do with serious foreign policy thought than trying to jockey for position against Hillary Clinton, whose lead appears to be widening in some national polls of Democratic voters. It may also foreshadow a general election strategy of hitting President Bush and the Republicans from the left on Iraq and from the right on al Qaeda.
At least Mike Gravel has finally gotten an answer to his famous query, "Tell me Barack, who do you want to nuke?"
BUT THE CONSERVATIVE REACTION is more intriguing. Obama was obviously reacting to a New York Times report that the Bush administration had aborted a proposed 2005 special operations raid on al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. The mission was reportedly backed by Donald Rumsfeld and Porter Goss, then defense secretary and CIA director, respectively.
The administration apparently decided the raid wasn't worth the price of alienating or endangering Musharraf's government, an imperfect ally vastly preferable to a situation where Islamic fundamentalists command a nuclear arsenal.
If Rumsfeld and Goss had gotten their way, how many conservative bloggers would have called it a blunder? And if President Obama or President Clinton were to abandon a "snatch and grab" operation against al Qaeda chiefs, how would conservatives have reacted?
According to the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, "a key part of the psychology of the right" explains the apparent contradiction. "In the conservative mind, it is axiomatic that President Bush takes the maximal hawkish position," he claimed. "If Democrats are to his left, then they are appeasers. If Democrats are to his right, then they are taking an irresponsible position, because everybody knows that President Bush wants to kill the bad guys."
Judging from conservative criticisms of Bush for being insufficiently hawkish, however, this seems an exaggeration if not a total misreading. Partisans on both sides are more likely to trust their own candidates' instincts -- and to be skeptical of the military interventions of opposing parties.
But perhaps this isn't entirely bad. Democrats need to be reminded that the projection of American military strength will play a vital role in protecting this country from Islamist terror. It's also good for Republicans to remember how military action, like other government interventions, can have dangerous unintended consequences -- a discussion that would have been helpful concerning Iraq and will be essential in figuring out how to deal with Iran.
Just don't ask Obama to sort it all out. He's too busy trying to out-triangulate a triangulator.
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