US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s tough talk on Pakistan is not surprising. In a statement he made last Wednesday, Mr Obama said he would send in US forces to destroy terrorist camps in Pakistan, irrespective of Pervez Musharraf being considered an ally. The Illinois Senator is obviously keen to catch up on popularity ratings with his top rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who accuses him of being “irresponsible and naïve” for an earlier address in which he declared he would have unconditional talks with heads of States like Cuba, North Korea and Iran. That the Senator initially ruled out using nuclear weapons in South Asia to defeat terrorism, before hastily retracting it, makes damage control even more difficult for him. Curiously, Mr Obama made such hawkish statements in 2004 too, when he championed the use of ‘surgical’ missile strikes against Iran (if it failed to stop its nuclear energy programme), and on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal (in the event of a coup that removed the Musharraf regime).
What makes these efforts to bolster the Senator’s credibility on foreign policy remarkable, however, is that they are all pegged on the flip side of current US policy. Many US voters are dissatisfied with their country’s foreign policy, and that on Pakistan is no exception. Washington is fast running out of elbowroom in dealing with Pakistan, a crucial ally in the war against terrorism, as the situation inside the country looks less stable almost by the day. A new US intelligence estimate reportedly suggests that Al-Qaeda has rebuilt a haven there, forcing the Bush administration to publicly declare that the US would not rule out using military force to fight terrorists inside Pakistan. In the same breath, Mr Bush is all praise for Mr Musharraf’s so-called efforts to root out terror in Pakistan.
The dilemma for the US is that while inaction is not an option, neither could be any stepped-up intelligence or military action against Al-Qaeda, which runs the risk of further destabilising Pakistan and, indeed, the region. Mr Musharraf’s compliance with Washington’s dictates post-9/11 has left him increasingly isolated as anger against US policies continues to grow in Pakistan. At this point, the only silver lining is his commitment to hold elections later this year.