During last night's surprise address on the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama reminded his audience, "Over the years, I've repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we've done." It's worth remembering that this promise -- which last night spurred relief and jubilation in the streets of Washington, DC and at Ground Zero in New York City -- was once controversial.
It was in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington back in August of 2007 that Obama first made it clear that he was willing to chase down bin Laden into Pakistan, if necessary:
When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won, with a comprehensive strategy with five elements: getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan; developing the capabilities and partnerships we need to take out the terrorists and the world's most deadly weapons; engaging the world to dry up support for terror and extremism; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland.
The first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He went on:
As President, I would make 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.
I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. 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.
Days later, at a Democratic primary debate in Chicago, most of Obama's rivals came with their knives out over his position on Pakistan. Former senator Chris Dodd (CT) kicked off the criticism, insisting that while "General [Pervez] Musharraf is no Thomas Jefferson, he may be the only thing that stands between us and having an Islamic fundamentalist state in that country." He went on, alluding to Obama, "I think it's highly ... irresponsible for people who are running for the presidency and seek that office to suggest we may be willing unilaterally to invade a nation here who we're trying to get to be more cooperative with us in Afghanistan and elsewhere."
Obama responded: "Chris, respectfully -- and you and I are close friends -- but the fact is you obviously didn't read my speech. Because what I said was that we have to refocus, get out of Iraq, make certain that we are helping Pakistan deal with the problem of al Qaeda in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, Chris, if we have actionable intelligence on al Qaeda operatives, including bin Laden, and President Musharraf cannot act, then we should. Now, I think that's just common sense."
It was Obama's main rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, who offered up the most sustained criticism:
Well, I do not believe people running for president should engage in hypotheticals. And it may well be that the strategy we have to pursue on the basis of actionable intelligence -- but remember, we've had some real difficult experiences with actionable intelligence -- might lead to a certain action.
But I think 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.
So 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 would parry, pointing out that he "did not say that we would immediately go in unilaterally," but would work with Musharraf where applicable. But from that point forward on the campaign trail, the idea that Obama had threatened to "bomb Pakistan" managed to keep coming up again and again. Here's Clinton, at a later debate, insinuating that Obama "basically threatened to bomb Pakistan":
And here's Senator John McCain, picking up that same thread, saying "You make plans and you work with the other country that is your ally and friend, which Pakistan is ... You don't broadcast and say that you're going to bomb a country without their permission":
Interestingly enough, if you go back to the August primary debate, there was one Obama rival willing to back him up on Pakistan -- Joe Biden:
BIDEN: I got to say something here. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. The truth of the matter is, none of what you heard earlier is correct. It's already the policy of the United States, has been for four years, that if there was actionable intelligence, we would go into -- into Pakistan. That's the law. Secondly, it's already the law, that I wrote into the law, saying that in fact we don't cooperation from Musharraf, we cut off his money. It's time everybody start to know the facts -- the facts.
It couldn't have been the only reason Biden was eventually selected as Obama's running mate, but it surely didn't hurt.