Friday, August 3, 2007

Obama on Pakistan

from the New Republic blog The Plank:

Barack Obama's speech yesterday about Islamic extremism, and especially the part about Pakistan, struck me as spot on. Some of the reactions I've seen from left and right, however, seem pretty strange.

First, here's the key section:

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.

Obama is clearly referring to this recent New York Times story, which reports that the Bush administration aborted at the last minute a Special Operations mission to capture senior al Qaeda leadership.

Some liberals object to this on principled grounds. Chris Bowers writes:

As we have all learned from the example of Bush and Republicans over the years, the media and foreign policy establishment doesn't care if you are "inexperienced" on foreign policy as long as you threaten to bomb people, in which case you look "tough" and "serious." Obama is trying to win the approval of that establishment, and change the way he is portrayed by it.

In fact, Obama is talking about a snatch and grab operation, not bombing. Kevin Drum, meanwhile, objects:

[I]t's fanciful to think that these kind of operations are going to have any serious impact on a lawless, treacherous, famously uncontrollable area of over 10,000 square miles.

Well, I agree that you can't destroy a whole movement with special forces, but I do think that decapitating the al Qaeda leadership is pretty significant.

Meanwhile, the right's response isn't even principled. Conservatives have done little the last five years but call Democrats squeamish wimps. Now that a major Democratic candidate comes out with a position to the right of the administration, they have almost nothing to say. John Podhoretz, one of the few conservatives to comment, pooh-poohed Obama:

What's more, every serious person knows the United States won't invade Pakistan, even with Special Forces -- since the reason we cancelled the proposed action against Al Qaeda in 2005 is that it was going to take many hundreds of American troops to do it....If the evil Bushitler Cheney Rumsfeld Monster wouldn't do it, nobody will do it.

This is a fascinating reaction. In fact, plenty of serious people favored the 2005 operation--as the Times article makes clear, they included senior military officials and CIA Director Porter Goss.

So why is Podhoretz so certain they were wrong and Rumsfeld was right? I think this gets at a key part of the psychology of the right. In the conservative mind, it is axiomatic that President Bush takes the maximal hawkish position. If Democrats are to his left, then they are appeasers. If Democrats are to his right, then they are taking an irresponsible position, because everybody knows that President Bush wants to kill the bad guys. This is essentially a definitional property in their mind. Even when they agitate for the administration to take a more hawkish action--say, bombing Iran--they won't criticize the administration for failing to take that action.

Am I sure the operation would have been a good idea? No, I can't be sure, because I don't have access to all the information. I will say that if there's a debate between Donald Rumsfeld and somebody else, my general bias is that somebody else was right.

But it's telling that so few conservatives agree with Obama, or will say so. Let's put it this way: If the special forces had a planned operation to take out the senior Al Qaeda leadership, and senior military officials and the CIA director favored it, and they aborted the mission at the last minute, I'm guessing conservatives would be unhappy.

--Jonathan Chait

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