The inability of presidential aspirants to deal with reality is sometimes astonishing. Concerning Pakistan and its beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf, only one thing is true from the US national interest perspective: Musharraf is Washington's best hope for containing and eventually defeating the one terrorist group that actually threatens the United States. That group is Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, which has found shelter in the trackless tribal region of Waziristan along the Pakistani-Afghan border. White House propaganda notwithstanding, no other group has the ability, resources, or the stated intention to attack the United States. One does not have to approve of Musharraf's brand of soft military dictatorship or the delicate political balancing act that he must engage in to stay in power to understand that he is essential to American efforts to control terrorism in central Asia. So why don't Congress and the gaggle of presidential candidates get it?
Congressman Tom Tancredo's call last week to threaten to punish all Muslims by nuking Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia to deter a terrorist attack directed against the US should be taken as a good example of the current level of the debate on security policy. The leading Republican candidates had already established an incredibly low benchmark in the foreign policy sweepstakes by their stated willingness to use nuclear weapons against Iran. They have buttressed their resolve to kill still more young Americans in a new effort to remake the Middle East through the appointment of a number of neoconservatives as their foreign policy advisers, including Norman Podhoretz, who has called for World War IV against all "Islamofascists" everywhere. Other leading neocons advising Republicans include Elizabeth Cheney, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, and Jim Woolsey.
This past week it was the turn of the Democrats to demonstrate again their unfitness for high office. The leading Democrats are unflinching in their support of a military option against Iran and are as willing as any Republican to define Israel's right to self defense as a carte blanche to attack any and all of its neighbors. Now they too are lining up to get tough with Pakistan. Democrats are invariably obsessed with demonstrating how tough they can be. Their latest performances come in the wake of the July 17th National Intelligence Estimate that reported that al-Qaida had largely reconstituted itself in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan. Senator Barack Obama jumped on the scrum last Wednesday when he make clear that a President Obama would use US troops to attack Pakistan and would cut off all aid to Islamabad if terrorist operations are not shut down and foreign fighters expelled. As he put it, " ... if President Musharraf won't act, we will." The use of the royal "we" is significant, meaning, unfortunately, that Obama is beginning to believe his own hype.
Obama's comments came one week after rival Senator Hillary Clinton tried to portray him as naïve and soft on terrorism for his stated willingness to talk to international bad guys like Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Fidel Castro of Cuba, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Obama's willingness to talk to adversaries would appear to be reasonable to most foreign policy experts, but it was quickly described as a vulnerability when seen through the distorting prism of American politics.
Obama's new, tougher stance to teach the treacherous Pakis a lesson is already being used by the Pakistani media to flail Musharraf for his ties to the United States. Obama might be surprised to learn that no one particularly wants to be invaded by the world's sole remaining superpower, particularly as Iraq has proven to be such a success. Obama also seems unaware that his posturing for political gain could have real foreign policy consequences. His apparent ignorance of the situation on the ground in Pakistan is surprising in a candidate who is generally very well briefed by his staff, but he surely understands that his comments amount to bravado, pure and simple. An American invasion of Pakistan would not likely succeed in locating and eliminating al-Qaida and would instead bring about political chaos spilling over into all of central Asia. Even uber-hawk Senator John McCain conceded that he would have to "think it through" before attacking Pakistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan dissolving into anarchy would make the mean streets of Baghdad look positively benign.
Not to be outdone by Obama's coloratura performance, Senator Hillary Clinton moved even further to the right when she announced on Thursday that she would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons on the terrorists hiding in Pakistan. It is not clear where the "who is tougher" competition will go from here as it would seem that Hillary has seized all the high ground. That such an attack would inevitably kill many thousands of non-terrorists apparently is not relevant. It would also inter alia be an act of war against a country of 170 million that already doesn't like the US very much and that is itself armed with nuclear weapons. For the square-jawed and resolute Hillary, attacking another sovereign nation would apparently be an act without consequences. Unfortunately, the Pakistanis are aware of what she is saying and are paying attention to her, further undermining Musharraf and reducing the number of Pakistanis who are willing to support a US-led counterterrorism policy in Asia. If the Democrats continue to beat on Islamabad there might not be any friendly natives left in Pakistan by inauguration time in January 2009.
And it is not just the presidential candidates. On July 27th, Congress demonstrated that collectively speaking and in true bipartisan fashion it is no better informed than either Obama or Clinton. Legislation sent to the White House mandates that Pakistan take steps to expel the Taliban and al-Qaida from its territory or face the consequences, which would be a cut off in US military and economic assistance. Without such aid, developing world Pakistan would be unable to do anything at all against the terrorist groups and it would drop out of the fight. Congress and the presidential candidates are apparently unaware that since 9/11 Pakistan's security forces have killed or captured more al-Qaida than all of the other intelligence services in the rest of the world combined. Without Pakistan, there would not be any war on terror.
One might argue that pandering for votes and political contributions is as American as apple pie, but every once in a while it would be refreshing to hear a candidate stake out a position that is genuinely supportive of the national interest. Only Kucinich, Gravel, and Ron Paul are regularly talking sense and all three of them have been marginalized by the power brokers in their own parties. Attacking Iran and Pakistan either together or separately in a bid to end regional instability and international terrorism is a delusion. Even talking about possibly carrying out such attacks is foolish as it creates unhelpful perceptions about American misuse of its power and unleashes forces that cannot be controlled. Being tough to the point of weakening allies and unnecessarily making new enemies might please the Armageddonists who are eager to end the world so they can be raptured up to heaven or the neoconservatives who want to fight all Muslims all the time, but it is hardly serves the interests of most Americans.