Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Obama's international melodrama"

Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune):

Senator, though right, takes flak from all sides--Leave it to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to stir up an international incident by acknowledging something everyone already knew.
Obama's bombshell: If the Obama administration knows Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan and President Pervez Musharraf doesn't act to take him out, President Obama will. Obama's rivals in the race for the White House pounced, calling his stance naive and a sign of his lack of foreign policy experience. They didn't disagree with the policy. They didn't like the way he said it.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton launched the naive theme earlier when Obama suggested that he would meet with dictators from countries such as Cuba, Iran, Venezuela or North Korea in his first year as president. First you need preconditions to such meetings, she scolded, like a wise teacher setting a prized pupil straight.

This was Clinton's comeback to all of the points that Obama has scored as the voice for a new generation of leadership.

The gloves are coming off. We're seeing a new debate emerging in the dog days of summer that's centering on how much Obama has to learn about foreign policy. The former first lady and second-term senator, who has been widening her lead over Obama in polls, certainly has the edge on experience. But Obama has a big comeback of his own: If experience got us into the foreign policy mess we face today, that kind of experience is overrated.

Obama was criticized for declaring in a recent foreign policy speech that "if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

Various reports indicate bin Laden probably is holed up somewhere in the lawless borderlands of western Pakistan and Afghanistan, where tribal chiefs have more control than the country's central government.

Does anyone doubt that the U.S. would launch a missile strike or an attack by U.S. Special Forces if we had actionable intelligence as to bin Laden's location? We've certainly done it before in other countries. In 2002, for example, the U.S. launched a Hellfire missile from a pilotless CIA spy plane that killed a top Al Qaeda official and six other Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, another partner in our "war on terror." Yemen's president protested, but our relationship remained largely unshaken.

Yet, Clinton and other leading Democratic rivals, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, saw an opportunity to criticize Obama and they took it. So did former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican roster.

Yet, Obama's critics acknowledged that his policy is already the Bush administration's policy. Furthermore, none of the leading candidates disagreed with it.

So what was the problem? The issue quickly became a question of international etiquette.

"You can think big," Sen. Clinton scolded Obama during a candidates' forum in Chicago, "but remember, you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president, because it has consequences around the world."

Indeed, halfway around the world, Pakistani officials had called Obama's comments irresponsible and hundreds of protesters chanted anti-U.S. slogans and burned an American flag in protest, according to The Associated Press.

And that's how many countries often see our presidential campaigns. They presume our elections are all about them.

In fact, our election is about us, the American voters, and which candidate we think we can trust the most to look out for us, our families and our interests.

With that in mind, Obama is fortunate to be jousting over foreign policy during a time in the summer when voters are least engaged with the campaign. It is a great paradox of this election that foreign policy expertise alone doesn't get you very far. Otherwise Biden, whose foreign policy expertise wins praise from both parties, would be doing better than the 2 or 3 percent he usually gets in the polls.

Personally, I'd feel better about acting on "actionable intelligence," as Obama put it, if I had more confidence in what our intelligence apparatus calls "actionable." As Sen. Clinton said, we've had some bad experience with intelligence that proved to be faulty. Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction come to mind.

With that in mind, the foreign policy debate needs to be expanded into the question of how the candidates would improve intelligence gathering. Too often we don't know whether our actions based on actionable intelligence are justified until after we have acted.



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