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Michael Smerconish Headshot

Between the Ds, it's Obama!

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More than 130,000 Pennsylvanians joined the Democratic Party in the days and weeks leading up to our March 24 registration deadline.

I wasn't one of them.

I'm still a Republican, and while I won't have a vote in the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, like everyone else, I have an opinion as to the better of the two.

It's Obama.

I've watched virtually all the Democratic debates. Spent time reading the policy papers. Read each of their memoirs. There are few discernible differences between the two on the issues (she wants an individual mandate on health care; he's more anxious to leave Iraq). Each offers a similarly liberal agenda that will cause me angst in the fall.

But right now, one is more focused on an issue of paramount concern to me -- the failure to avenge the deaths of innocent Americans by bringing Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to justice.

And that's Obama.

Beyond the usual family milestones, the most significant event in the life of any American born after World War II occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

That day changed life as we knew it. Three thousand innocent fellow Americans died that day, and another 4,000 have died thereafter. Saying that is not an attempt to link al Qaeda and Iraq, nor is it a defense of the Iraq invasion. It is simply the recognition that without 9/11, there wouldn't have been the public support for the war. So I blame al Qaeda for toppling the first dominoes that led us to where we are today.

How appalling that 6 1/2 years after 9/11, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have not been held accountable. The oft-repeated explanations of the search being nuanced or covering difficult terrain should have worn thin long ago, especially where published accounts suggest the failure has more to do with our having outsourced the hunt, at great cost, to someone who doesn't seem to have the motivation to get the job done.

Blame for this should rest with the Bush administration, the media (for being appeased by the administration's superficial explanations) and the public, which has let the issue disappear from the public debate. What's happened to the days when a Bryn Mawr soccer mom would have yearned to strangle bin Laden or al-Zawahiri with her bare hands?

There is a fair amount in the public record to figure out what went wrong. Bin Laden is presumed to have been in Afghanistan on 9/11 and to have fled during the battle at Tora Bora in December 2001. Gary Berntsen was the CIA officer in charge on the ground. He told me that his request for Army Rangers to prevent an escape into Pakistan was denied, and sure enough, that's where bin Laden went.

Then came a period when the administration was presumed to be pressing the search through means it couldn't share publicly. But as time went by with no capture, the signs became more troublesome.

We now know that, in late 2005, the CIA disbanded Alec Station, the FBI-CIA unit dedicated to finding bin Laden, as reported on July 4, 2006, by the New York Times.

Well, perhaps we closed the bin Laden unit because Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was fully engaged in the hunt in his country's northwest territories, where the duo were supposedly hiding. But in September 2006, Musharraf reached an accord with tribal leaders, notorious for their refusal to hand over a guest, whereby he agreed to give them continued free reign.

Our response? Agree to pay Musharraf enormous sums of money for a search he had just agreed not to undertake. On May 20, 2007, the Times reported that we were paying $80 million a month to Pakistan for its supposed counter-terrorism efforts, for a total of $5.6 billion.

Meanwhile, there was no demand for accountability by our government. The White House and the Pentagon played down the significance of capturing bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and President Bush offered only superficial responses to the few questions raised on the status of the search. For example, on Feb. 23, 2007, the Army's highest-ranking officer, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, said he didn't know whether we would find bin Laden, and "I don't know that it's all that important, frankly."

At a May 24, 2007, White House news conference, when the president was asked why Osama was still at large, his answer was the usual bankrupt refrain: "Because we haven't got him yet... That's why. And he's hiding, and we're looking, and we will continue to look until we bring him to justice."

Bin Laden, meanwhile, was active. In July 2007, a National Security Estimate concluded that the failure of Musharraf's accord with warlords in Pakistan's tribal areas had allowed bin Laden's thugs there to regroup. On July 22, National Intelligence Director Adm. Mike McConnell said on "Meet the Press" that he believed bin Laden was in Pakistan in the very region Musharraf had ceded to the warlords.

By then, the presidential campaign was under way, but despite its 24/7 nature, it has failed to stir up a discussion about the failure to capture or kill those who pushed us down such a perilous path.

In the first seven presidential debates -- four for the D's, three for the R's - there was only one question in 15 hours of discourse that touched on the subject of finding bin Laden in Pakistan, and it came from the audience.

Enter Barack Obama. On Aug. 1, 2007, he delivered a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets, and President Musharraf won't act, we will.

"We can't send millions and millions of dollars to Pakistan for military aid, and be a constant ally to them, and yet not see more aggressive action in dealing with al Qaeda."

Finally, a presidential candidate saying something about this foreign-policy failure. The reaction: Ridicule.

Hillary Clinton said, "You can think big, but, remember, you shouldn't always say everything you think when you're running for president because it could have consequences across the world, and we don't need that right now."

Across the aisle, John McCain also pounded Obama for a perceived lack of seasoning in the realm of foreign relations: "The best idea is to not broadcast what you're going to do," McCain said in February. "That's naive."

To his credit, Obama has refused to back away from his insistence on reasserting American control over the hunt for bin Laden. I interviewed him on March 21, and asked him about this issue. He told me that Musharraf, despite being flush with billions in American aid, was not taking counter-terrorism seriously.

"That's part of the reason that I've been a critic from the start of the war in Iraq," Obama told me. "It's not that I was opposed to war. It's that I felt we had a war that we had not finished.

"And al Qaeda is stronger now than at any time since 2001, and we've got to do something about that because those guys have a safe haven there and they are still planning to do Americans harm."

And he pointed out that the Bush administration is now showing signs of following his lead.

Obama reminded me that a late-January airstrike killed a senior al Qaeda commander in Pakistan, calling it an example of the type of action he's been recommending since August. (The CIA, it was reported a few weeks after the strike, acted without the direct approval of Musharraf.)

Obama told me we should still ask the Pakistanis to target and attack the terrorists hiding within their borders.

"But if they don't, we shouldn't need permission to go after folks that killed 3,000 Americans."

I think every American can agree that our obligation to bring Osama to justice necessitates such thinking.

And while Clinton promises to answer the White House phone at 3 a.m., Obama threatens to disrupt the place many suspect the world's most despicable terrorists are still hiding.

It's not my party. I can't pull a lever on Tuesday.

But if I could, I would vote for Obama, for 7,000 reasons.