For the first time, American forces based in Afghanistan have acknowledged crossing the border into Pakistan to attack Queda militants there. The attack carries a bundle of grave risks, as nuclear-armed Pakistan is already in the midst of a political crisis that seems to worsen by the day. It is also a step that has been forcefully advocated by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," Obama said way back in August 2007. He has repeated this position ever since, most recently during his highly publicized trip abroad. At the recent Democratic National Convention, there were repeated barbs thrown at Republican candidate John McCain from promising to follow Osama bin Laden "to the gates of hell" but not into Pakistan.
With yesterday's cross-border airborne assault, it seems that Obama's position has now become official US policy. This follows the Bush administration accepting, in at least some sense, the idea of a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, another idea pushed early and hard by Obama and the Democrats.
Since the very start of his campaign, Senator Obama has sought to provide political cover to his opposition to the war in Iraq by being explicitly hawkish on Afghanistan. It is not that he is against war, he insists, just the "wrong" war. Iraq is the "wrong" war, Afghanistan the "right" war.
Long forgotten is the debate in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 over whether the World Trade Center attack was an "act of war" at all, or a "crime against humanity." The distinction was crucial. The "war" framework called for an invasion of Afghanistan and carting off "enemy combatants" to Guantánamo. The "crime" framework called for a coordinated international police effort to capture Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants and put them on trial in an international court for crimes against humanity. (You can see the debate at the time here and here, just for starters.)
That is all ancient history now. The gradual alignment of the Obama campaign and the Bush administration on Iraq and Afghanistan illustrates how the Bush wars have painted the US into a corner where there are precious few options, all of them fraught with peril. Bush has left us with a playing field in which opposing war and favoring international law no longer appears as a realistic option. We "free worlders" get to exercise our freedom by choosing between supporting a blanket "war on terror," and trying to distinguish the "right" foreign wars from the "wrong."
And the "good" war is even more dangerous that the "bad" one. President Musharraf was recently ousted from power in Pakistan, leaving a tinderbox of competing parties and interests attempting to govern the increasingly chaotic country. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a political rally in December. Current Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was the target of an assassination attempt just yesterday. This is a country with, at best guess, between 50 and 100 nuclear warheads.
None of this is Obama's doing, but it may soon become his inheritance. Candidate Obama frequently looks to the legacy of JFK for inspiration and symbolism. With the American military now going into combat in yet another country, it might be a good time for the candidate to consider those parts of the JFK legacy that Democrats would rather forget: the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and, of course, the Vietnam war. After all, JFK was another young president, a Democrat anxious to establish his national security cred, surrounded by a brain trust of self-confident go-getters who thought they could handle Cuba and Vietnam by being more competent than those they replaced.