08/04/2007 09:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Wrong Fix on al Qaeda

The media and blogosphere discussion of the Obama-Clinton fight over their respective positions on what to do about al Qaeda in Pakistan has missed the real problem with Obama's proposed fix for the problem: it has already been tried and hasn't worked.

What has been missing from the debate over his speech is any mention of the one policy option that would be far more effective than any military operation - international economic sanctions.

Obama's position of pledging to carry out a unilateral strike on any "high value" al Qaeda target on which there is "actionable intelligence" is far less bold and innovative than it has been made to appear. In fact, that is exactly what the Bush administration has been doing quietly in Pakistan's Waziristan provinces for more than two years, not unilaterally but with the tacit but tacit permission of the Musharraf regime. For example, a hellfire missile fired from a predator drone aircraft was reported to have killed an al Qaeda operative in Waziristan in May 2005. The Pakistani government officially denied the incident.

Officially unacknowledged strikes by predator drones against al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan were also carried out in December 2005 and October 2006 . Pakistani intelligence sources admitted privately that the U.S. drone had hit a high-ranking al Qaeda commander in the December 2005 strike.

The Musharraf regime's acceptance of those predator strikes, while publicly denying any knowledge of them, was obviously the deal that the Bush administration struck with Musharraf in return for keeping quiet about his government's policy of quietly allowing al Qaeda to operate freely on its soil. It was a terrible deal for the United States. The U.S. strikes may have been minor setbacks to the al Qaeda organization in Pakistan, but they obviously have made no difference whatever in its ability to plan future operations elsewhere in the world, including the United States.

The only thing that will make any difference is a determined Pakistani policy of denial to the al Qaeda organization and to its Taliban allies in Waziristan.

Although it is always tempting to think there must be a more some military answer to the problem, sending in special forces against such a well-entrenched an well-hidden foe under the circumstances now existing in Pakistan would be completely unrealistic. Predator attacks can be carried out without the cooperation of the Pakistani military and intelligence services, but a full-fledged military operation there without that cooperation would be practically impossible.

That does not mean there are no new policy options for Obama and the Democrats to embrace on destroying the al Qaeda safe haven in Pakistan? I am not referring to the threat to withhold military assistance, which Obama and other democrats have already embraced. The Pakistani military wants more military aid from the United States, but it could survive without it.

What the military leadership of Pakistan does fear, however, is the loss of economic ties to the global economic system which have made Pakistan's economy one of the fastest growing in the world in the years since the Bush administration withdrew previous sanctions in 2001. The Pakistani economy is vulnerable to a program agreed on by all the major industrialized states to reduce those economic relationships, as became apparent when foreign investment dried up in the 1990s as a result of sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons program.

Why then, has no one in American politics called for threatening Musharraf with far- reaching economic sanctions against Pakistan if he does not take decisive action against the al Qaeda in Pakistan? By any reasonable standard, that terrorist haven represents a threat to American and European security infinitely more serious than whatever threat might be associated with Iran's nuclear program. The United States has used its diplomatic muscle to get the United Nations Security Council to agree to sanctions against Iran and has even pressured private banks and other international corporations to stop doing business with Iran. But it has not even hinted publicly at the slightest possibility that such an approach should be applied to Pakistan.

The absence of any public discussion of economic sanctions does not mean that Bush administration officials did not consider the threat of such sanctions as a means of getting Musharraf's attention after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, it used it to telling effect with Musharraf.

Musharraf claims in his own memoirs that the day after the attacks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Director General of Pakistan 's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate that, in Musharraf's words, "If we chose the terrorists, then we should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age."

It appears, however, Musharraf was just dramatizing the circumstances under which he caved into U.S. pressure to cooperate on the Taliban and al Qaeda. I am told by a former Bush administration official that Armitage's threat was not actually about military action against Pakistan but about economic sanctions that would have a serious impact on the country. "He said we would freeze assets, and that there would be other sanctions that would make Pakistan dry up like a raisin in the sun," recalls the source.

The next day, Musharraf accepted all seven demands posed by the Bush administration on Pakistan's cooperation against al Qaeda. Unfortunately, Pakistan's ISI was soon back to its old ways, providing a new haven and operational base for the Taliban and al Qaeda. Obama and the Democrats should start raising the real and potent issue of why Bush let Musharraf get away that policy for so long instead of exploiting its real source of leverage on Pakistan.