Pakistan may have burst onto the television screens of average Americans Thursday morning with the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the turbulent nation at the forefront of the Bush administration’s war on Islamic terrorism had long ago quietly displaced Iraq as the central example in his attempt to articulate a new, dramatically different foreign policy.
And while many campaigns took studiously apolitical public stances in the wake of Bhutto’s murder, Obama’s advisers were frank in arguing that the new crisis on the subcontinent vindicates their candidate. Obama aides took particular aim at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, arguing that her vote to authorize the war in Iraq indirectly led to the turmoil in Pakistan by sapping resources from the battle against Al Qaeda. The skirmish reflects a larger struggle between an establishment Democratic view of the world and Obama’s call for a generational shift.
“Those who made the judgment that we ought to divert our attention from Afghanistan to invade Iraq and allow Al Qaeda to reconstitute and strengthen are now having to assess the wisdom of that judgment as we may be seeing yet another manifestation of Al Qaeda’s potency,” said Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy adviser who was an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, in an interview with Politico.
She said Pakistan illustrates a difference between Obama and Clinton’s approaches to foreign policy. Clinton, in Rice’s view, is willing to tolerate authoritarian regimes — in this case the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf — who might be useful to short-term U.S. goals. Obama, on the other hand, seeks a diplomacy that sees values and human rights than traditional realpolitik.
“Sen. Clinton’s view has been closer to Bush’s, which is to see Musharraf as the linchpin but democracy as something that is desirable, but not necessarily essential to our security interests,” said Rice. “Whereas Obama feels that democracy and human rights in the context of Pakistan are essential to our security.”
Clinton's campaign foreign policy adviser, Lee Feinstein, denounced Rice’s comments in an emailed statement that disputed her characterization.
“Sen. Obama's continuing and deliberate efforts to politicize this tragedy by blaming Sen. Clinton for it are unbecoming someone seeking the office of the presidency,” Feinstein said. “Sen. Clinton has opposed the Bush administration’s coddling of President Musharraf and stood steadfastly with the people of Pakistan in their struggle for democracy and against terrorism,” he said.
Earlier in the day, a comment by Obama political adviser David Axelrod linking Clinton to Bhutto’s death had met with a milder denunciation, and Axelrod later said he hadn’t meant to suggest Clinton was “complicit” in Bhutto’s slaying.
Obama defended Axelrod in an interview on CNN Thursday night, saying his strategist only spoke in response to an inappropriate question about the assassination’s effect on politics. But he said that “if we are going to talk politics, then the question has to be, ‘Who has exercised the kind of judgment that would be more likely to lead to better outcomes in the Middle East and better outcomes in Pakistan?'”
“To the extent there are those who are claiming now that their experience somehow makes them superior to deal with these issues — I think it's important for the American people to look at the judgments they've made in the past,” he said, referring to Clinton.
Thursday’s dispute came after a series of exchanges in debates and speeches this summer and fall in which Obama and Clinton — who had quibbled only over details of Iraq policy since she voted for the war, and he opposed it, in October 2002 — differed on U.S. policy in Pakistan.
Obama has argued for less concern about preserving the stability of the government of Musharraf and less compromise on establishing democracy. Clinton cast herself as a tough-minded veteran of the international scene, and Obama as a naïf.
Clinton has been a critic of Bush's staunch support for Musharraf. But she has also put herself firmly on Obama’s realist flank when it comes to Pakistan, in a running argument on terrain of Obama’s choosing.
On Aug. 1, he buried a surprise in the middle of a speech laying out his views on counterterrorism.
“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will,” Obama said, openly suggesting cross-border raids into Pakistan which, while reportedly already a tool of American foreign policy through Special Forces actions, are a taboo subject. “Our goal is not simply an ally in Pakistan, it is a democratic ally,” he said.
Clinton, in a debate a week later, pointedly criticized his threat.
“It is a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamic extremists who are in bed with Al Qaeda and Taliban. And remember, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The last thing we want is to have Al Qaeda-like followers in charge of Pakistan and having access to nuclear weapons,” she said, chiding Obama. “You can think big, but remember, you shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences across the world.”
Obama again appeared to side for democracy over stability after Musharraf declared a state of emergency in early November. Both he and Clinton denounced the move, but Obama went a step further, demanding that Congress set conditions on aid to Pakistan in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The next exchange on Pakistan came in a Nov. 15 debate in Las Vegas, where CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Obama whether “human rights [are] more important than American national security.”
“The concepts are not contradictory. ... They are complementary, and I think Pakistan is a great example,” Obama said. “We’ve got to understand that if we simply prop up anti-democratic practices, that that feeds the sense that America is only concerned about us and that our fates are not tied to these other folks.”
Clinton again seemed to take the moment to draw a contrast, in response to the same question, saying she agreed with Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who had cautioned against conditioning aid to Pakistan on democratic reforms.
“The first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America,” Clinton said, appearing to advocate less-combative diplomacy. “Where we are today means that we have to say to President Musharraf, 'Look, this is not in your interest either. This is not in the interest of the United States. It is not in your interest to either stay in power or stay alive. We have to figure out how we're going to navigate this.'”
Obama was the first Democrat to release a statement after Bhutto’s assassination Thursday morning, just two hours and two minutes after she was pronounced dead in a hospital in Rawalpindi.
“I am shocked and saddened by the death of Benazir Bhutto in this terrorist atrocity,” he said, promising to stand with the Pakistani people “in their quest for democracy and against the terrorists who threaten the common security of the world.”
Rice said Obama isn’t likely to take any dramatic moves in the next few days that could further destabilize the country.
“This is a very sensitive and precarious situation, and it is not one on which we or anybody else ought to play politics and he won’t be doing that,” she said.