Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama issued a pointed warning yesterday to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying that as president he would be prepared to order U.S. troops into that country unilaterally if it failed to act on its own against Islamic extremists.
In his most comprehensive statement on terrorism, the senator from Illinois said that the Iraq war has left the United States less safe than it was before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that if elected he would seek to withdraw U.S. troops and shift the country's military focus to threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"When I am president, we will wage the war that has to be won," he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the District. He added, "The first step must be to get off the wrong battlefield in Iraq and take the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Obama's warning to Musharraf drew sharp criticism from several of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, but not from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
Obama delivered a biting critique of President Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq and of the administration's overall strategy for combating terrorism, while seeking to reassure Americans that his long-stated opposition to the Iraq war would not compromise his commitment to defending the country from the threat of Islamic extremists.
The muscular speech appeared aimed at inoculating him from criticism that he lacks the toughness to lead the country in a post-9/11 world, while attempting to show that an Obama presidency would herald an important shift in the United States' approach to the world, particularly the Middle East and nearby Asian nations.
The speech came a week after Clinton described Obama as "irresponsible and frankly naive" for saying during a Democratic debate that he would be prepared to meet during his first year as president with leaders of rogue nations without preconditions. That set off a days-long argument between the two over diplomacy and the use of the presidency.
Obama described Clinton's approach to diplomacy as "Bush-Cheney light." She described that comparison as "silly." Their differences on the issue of dealing with nations such as Iran, North Korea and Syria, however, appear not to be significant. Both favor a much more energetic and open diplomatic strategy than they say Bush has followed.
Much of Obama's speech yesterday focused on steps designed to reinvigorate U.S. diplomatic efforts to combat terrorism, but the most noteworthy proposals dealt with military actions. Obama said he would deploy at least two more brigades -- about 7,000 troops -- to Afghanistan to combat what he said is the growing Taliban influence there while sending the Afghan government an additional $1 billion in nonmilitary aid.
But he said he would tie U.S. military aid to Pakistan to that country's success in closing down terrorist training camps, in blocking the Taliban from using its territory as a staging ground for attacks on Afghanistan and in getting rid of foreign fighters.
"There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans," he said. "They are plotting to strike again. . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
Obama offered no direct criticism of his leading rival for the Democratic nomination, but he indirectly rebuked Clinton and other Democrats who voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war. "With that vote, Congress became co-author of a catastrophic war," he said.
Clinton did not respond yesterday to the issue of her Iraq vote, but she sought to show her toughness on dealing with terrorist threats without endorsing the idea of raids into Pakistan. In an interview with American Urban Radio News Networks, she said that if there were actionable intelligence showing Osama bin Laden or other prominent terrorist leaders in Pakistan, "I would ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured." She also said she long has favored sending more troops to Afghanistan.
Other Democratic candidates took issue with Obama's tough talk on Pakistan.
"It is dangerous and irresponsible to leave even the impression the United States would needlessly and publicly provoke a nuclear power," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) said in a statement.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in a telephone interview, said that Obama's threat, if acted upon, could inflame the entire Muslim world. "My international experience tells me that we should address this issue with tough diplomacy first with Musharraf and then leave the military option as a last resort," he said.
Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) said in a statement that he would first apply "maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia" to do their utmost to combat the spread of terrorism. He also challenged both Obama and Clinton to block a proposed U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called Obama's threat misguided. "The way to deal with it is not to announce it, but to do it," Biden said at the National Press Club. "The last thing you want to do is telegraph to the folks in Pakistan that we are about to violate their sovereignty."
Obama said opposition to the war in Iraq should not lead Americans to turn their backs on threats of terrorism. "The terrorists are at war with us," he said. "The threat is from violent extremists who are a small minority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, but the threat is real."
Beyond military measures aimed at defeating al-Qaeda, Obama outlined a series of other initiatives he would pursue to combat those threats. He repeated an earlier pledge to double U.S. foreign aid to $50 billion, said he would provide $2 billion to combat the influence of Islamic schools known as madrassas and launch a more ambitious public diplomacy initiative, which he promised to steer.
"As president, I will lead this effort," he said. "In the first 100 days of my administration, I will travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle."
Obama also called for additional steps to protect the homeland from possible attack and a reassertion of American values, promising to prohibit torture "without exception," close the terrorist prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and ensure that all intelligence gathering is done within the letter of the law.
Rekindling last week's debate with Clinton, Obama said he would bring a new approach to diplomacy. "It's time to turn the page on Washington's conventional wisdom that agreement must be reached before you meet, that talking to other countries is some kind of reward and that presidents can only meet with people who will tell them what they want to hear."