Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Political Fall-Out Over Obama’s Statement of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Against al Qaeda in Pakistan

There has been quite a bit of discussion and rancor following Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) recent comments on potentially striking al Qaeda in Pakistan if there was “actionable intelligence” and if President Musharraf refused to act, including whether the attack would include nuclear weapons.

Allow me to try to recap and clarify.

Obama delivered an address on August 1, in which he stated:

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. 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.

(Click here to read my previous post that highlights Obama’s comments on nuclear weapons issues during the speech. Or click here to read a post that highlights Obama’s statements on nuclear weapons issues he made not long ago in a Foreign Affairs article.)

In an interview with Obama the day after he made his speech, the Associated Press pushed the discussion of a potential strike against al Qaeda to include nuclear weapons:

AP: Sir, with regard to terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan ...

OBAMA: Yeah.

AP: Is there any circumstances where you'd be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?

OBAMA: No, I'm not, uh, there has been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss.

AP: Not even tactical?

OBAMA: No. I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance. Uh, if involving you know, civilians... Let me scratch all that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table so...

AP: No discussion within your group?

OBAMA: I made a very narrow statement that I think is incontrovertible, which is if we've got a actionable intelligence then uh....that there are high value Al Qaeda targets, that we should take them out. And that's the extent of the statement. I mean it's...

AP: But the nuclear topic is bound to come up because of the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is certainly capable from Middle East experts to have an irrational religious fanatic type leader.

OBAMA: I'm not going that far field on this topic -- right now the question is are we going after Al Qaeda, and that's what the topic of the speech was about.

(Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki later crystallized his comments: "His position could not be more clear: He would not consider using nuclear weapons to fight terror targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.")

That was the jumping off point for several Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to pounce on Obama’s comments.

Although she declined to say whether she agreed with Obama, fellow presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) did comment:

I think that presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents, since the Cold War, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.
Her comments came after a recent dust up in which Clinton criticized Obama for stating that he would be willing to meet the leaders of a number of countries unfriendly to the U.S.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), also running for president, likewise jumped in, stating:

Over the past several days, Senator Obama’s assertions about foreign and military affairs have been, frankly, confusing and confused. He has made threats he should not make and made unwise categorical statements about military options.

Presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) similarly chimed in, calling Obama’s approach of attacking al Qaeda in Pakistan if the U.S. has actionable intelligence and if President Musharraf won’t act "very naïve."

Obama’s comments also drew fire from the other side of the aisle during last Sunday’s Republican presidential debate, most notably former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA), who said:

…I had to laugh at what I saw Barack Obama do. I mean, in one week he went from saying he’s going to sit down, you know, for tea, with our enemies, but then he’s going to bomb our allies. I mean, he’s gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week.

Later on, after an amusing game of “Gotcha!” by moderator George Stephanopoulos, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was eventually squeezed for an answer similar to that of Obama’s:

Well, I would take that action if I thought there was no other way to crush Al Qaida, no other way to crush the Taliban, and no other way to be able to capture bin Laden. I think Pakistan has, unfortunately, not been making the efforts that they should be making. I think we should encourage them to do it, we should put the pressure on them to do it, and we should seek their permission if we ever had to take action there as we were able to get their permission -- Undersecretary or Deputy Secretary Armitage was very effective in getting Musharraf’s permission for us to act in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 and 2002.

When asked for his thoughts, Romney quipped:

Yes, I think Barack Obama is confused as to who are our friends and who are our enemies. In his first year, he wants to meet with Castro and Chavez and Assad, Ahmadinejad. Those are our enemies. Those are the world’s worst tyrants. And then he says he wants to unilaterally go in and potentially bomb a nation which is our friend. We’ve trying to strengthen Musharraf. We’re trying to strengthen the foundations of democracy and freedom in that country so that they will be able to reject the extremists. We’re working with them -- we’re working with them...
Stephanopoulos then pressed Romney, who instead deflected the question, saying that the U.S. should keep all of its options on the table, but not discuss them publicly.

When asked if anyone disagreed with Romney, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) jumped in but quickly digressed. He argued that Pakistan is already helping the U.S., that the problem lies with lies tribal chiefs in the border region, and that, ”When you have a country which is cooperating, you don’t tell them you are going to unilaterally move against them, or you are somehow going to undertake this by yourself.”

In a related discussion that followed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also faulted Obama, stating:

It’s naive to say that we will never use nuclear weapons. It’s naive to say we’re going to attack Pakistan without thinking it through. What if Musharraf were removed from power? What if a radical Islamic government were to take place because we triggered it with an attack?

The always interesting Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who recently gained attention for threatening to attack Islamic holy cities Mecca and Medina in order to deter Islamic terrorists from using nuclear weapons, went so far as to say that “…anybody that would suggest that we should take anything like this off the table in order to deter that kind of event in the United States isn’t fit to be president of the United States.

Leave it to Tancredo to make Hunter, McCain and Giuliani look like moderates.

But Obama did recently get some defense from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who criticized the Democratic presidential candidates who have refused to rule out using nuclear weapons in foreign policy. Likening the discussion over the potential use of nuclear weapons to President Bush’s policy, he said, "It's just wrong, not the way to beat terrorists." Harkin went on to say, "You're going to drop a bomb in Pakistan? They do have nuclear weapons themselves, folks."

1 comment:

Russ Wellen said...

Here's an excerpt from a blog I wrote on the subject, posted at Scholars & Rogues. (Hope I got this right: I'm a little nervous running this by experts.):

"Senator Clinton seems to be declaring that, deterrence aside, she doesn't rule out preemptive use of nuclear weapons (presumably tactical, or low-yield).

This policy was designed by the Pentagon with the blessings of the administration and can be seen most clearly in 2005's "Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations," which expanded on its earlier Nuclear Posture Review.

As Hans Christensen explains in Arms Control Today, "the new doctrine's approach grants regional nuclear-strike planning an increasingly expeditionary aura. . . . where the objective no longer is deterrence through threatened retaliation but battlefield destruction of targets."

Enveloped (in Christensen's wry expression) in an "expeditionary aura," the policy of preemptive nuke use is the exact opposite of deterrence, a time-tested policy.

Clinton imagines that, steeped in experience, grounded in realpolitik, she'll make a well-seasoned commander-in-chief. Then how does she (and the others) justify embracing the freakiest policy of the most wild-eyed administration ever?