Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States should reserve the right to invade the territory of its Pakistani allies and withdraw U.S. financial aid if it believed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was failing to do enough to stop terrorists.
“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” Obama said in an address at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here. “I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America.”
Obama laid out other steps aimed at combating terrorism. He said that while drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq, he would add at least two brigades to Afghanistan -- about 5,000 troops -- and increase nonmilitary aid to the country by $1 billion, to $3 billion.
The first-term Illinois senator has highlighted his long-standing opposition to the Iraq war and his desire to end combat operations there, but he faces a challenge in trying to show voters he has the experience and temperament to be commander in chief. In recent days, his leading rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), has charged that Obama’s declared willingness to meet without preconditions with leaders of adversary nations, such as Iran and Syria, is “irresponsible and naive.”
But whereas Obama’s 40-minute speech repositioned him on combating terrorists -- which voters now identify as their top concern -- it also opened him up to potential criticism from liberal Democrats who have provided much of his primary-season support.
“For progressive Democrats who want a more peaceful leadership in the world shown by our next president, [Obama’s speech] fails the threshold of getting us out of picking fights in the Mideast, and discarding the Bush doctrine of preemptive attacks,” Jerome Armstrong, an influential liberal blogger, wrote shortly after the speech.
Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said that Obama had previously emphasized his opposition to the “unilateralism” of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. “It’s tough to criticize the Bush administration for unilateralism in Iraq, then say you’d be unilateral in Pakistan,” he said. “I’m wondering if some people are going to jump on him.”
After a Democratic debate in April, some political observers faulted Obama for failing to answer forcefully enough when asked what he would do as president if the U.S. again fell victim to a terrorist attack. While Clinton said she would strike back, Obama, in his first answer, said he would check the country’s emergency preparedness and consult with other nations.
But Obama aides and advisors denied that the speech Wednesday was an attempt to make up for that response.
In the speech, Obama on some points used the terminology of the Bush administration in describing the problem of terrorism. He said that terrorists were “at war with us” and were “seeking to create a repressive caliphate in the Muslim world.”
Yet he also declared that as president, he would launch a new effort to reach out to the Islamic world, which he said had come to view the United States as a hostile occupier.
In arguing that the United States should reserve the right to strike across the Pakistani border, Obama was taking an approach similar to that of the Bush administration. White House officials recently said they wanted to preserve that option, a comment that drew a sharp reaction from the Pakistani government.
But in threatening to withhold aid, Obama was going further than the White House, which has opposed any aid reduction on grounds that the U.S. should not risk weakening a government with a nuclear arsenal that could be ousted by a radical Islamic leadership.
Gregory Craig, a top Obama foreign policy advisor, said the candidate did not accept the Pakistani government’s argument that its collapse would usher in a radical regime.
“Those are not the choices in Pakistan,” he said in an interview. “There’s a huge moderate opposition in Pakistan that is hostile to the extremists.”
Obama’s speech comes at a time when Washington has been debating how to deal with a resurgent Al Qaeda and Taliban in tribal-controlled areas of Pakistan. A recent U.S. intelligence report said Al Qaeda had regrouped and built strength in areas bordering Afghanistan.
Obama’s position may be a sign of shifting sentiment in Congress on how to deal with Pakistan. Lawmakers have been largely unwilling to pressure Pakistan, but Congress last week adopted legislation that would condition aid on Pakistan’s performance in fighting terrorism.
Pakistani officials had no immediate public comment on the speech. But in an interview before Obama’s address, the governor of Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province criticized the U.S. threats of armed intervention and the conditioning of U.S. aid.
Gov. Owais Ahmed Ghani said the threat of military intervention was “very unfortunate” and had set off a strongly negative reaction among Pakistanis.
Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on the speech.
Other Democratic candidates criticized Obama’s comments, even while saying they would be equally tough in fighting terrorism.
“My international experience tells me that we should address this problem with tough diplomacy with Gen. Musharraf first, leaving the military as a last resort,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former diplomat.
Referring to Pakistan, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) called it “dangerous and irresponsible to leave even the impression the United States would needlessly and publicly provoke a nuclear power.”
The campaign of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) issued a statement saying it “congratulates Sen. Obama for a Johnny-come-lately position.” It said that Biden had co-written the legislation approved by Congress last week that conditions aid to Pakistan on its cooperation in combating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also said Biden had a long history of arguing that U.S. troops should be shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan.
“We find it a little disingenuous that Sen. Obama is hailing this as a new bold initiative when he has neglected to join his colleagues in the Senate when the opportunities have been there to redirect our forces into Afghanistan,” Biden campaign manager Luis Navarro said in a written statement.