When Barack Obama declared on Wednesday that he was prepared to unilaterally send US troops into Pakistan to get terrorists, his audience was less Pervez Musharraf than the US public. Obama, in an increasingly bitter struggle with Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, saw his poll ratings slip after a recent debate in which he sounded diplomatically naïve.
In his speech, Obama argued he would withdraw US soldiers from Iraq, but increase their number in Afghanistan. He said Musharraf hadn’t done enough in the fight against Al Qaeda. A poll by American Research Group showed Clinton had picked up a 21-point lead over Obama. In June, the lead was only 14 percentage points. Obama was especially hurt by a debate on YouTube, where he said he would be prepared to “unconditionally” meet leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Clinton has spent the past fortnight citing this as evidence of Obama’s “inexperience”.
Taking a hardline on Pakistan is useful for three reasons for Obama.
First, it allows the senator to show himself to be a hard-nosed on security while allowing him to seem different from mainstream thinking.
Irrespective of ideological persuasion, almost no member of the US public would see much merit in a US president who would let another government have veto over an attack on Osama bin Laden’s hideout. “Obama’s position is actually the same as President George W Bush,” points out Ashley Tellis, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “US homeland security advisor, Frances Townsend, said exactly this.”
However, publicly the Bush administration has had to say it would not violate Pakistani “sovereignty”.
Second, Pakistan is an easy target given growing concerns in Washington about Musharraf’s anti-terrorism credentials following the revival of Al- Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas. “You are likely to see many more statements across the political spectrum focusing on the situation in this remote part of northwest Pakistan,” says Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation.
“Since it is now clear Musharraf’s peace deals with the tribal leaders in these areas have failed, Washington is watching carefully to see how Musharraf will address these problems.” Tellis agrees: “There is real concern about Pakistan’s performance on terrorism on both sides of the aisle.”
Third, the speech still allows Obama to retain the main political scourge with which he has flayed Clinton — her vote in favour of the US invasion of Iraq. Obama has carefully distinguished between “the wrong war” in Iraq and “the right war” in Afghanistan. “If the Democrats insist on the US troop withdrawal from Iraq,” says Frederic Grare, a Washington-based expert on Pakistan, “they have to demonstrate they are as patriotic as any Republican. So Afghanistan, and now Pakistan, are the two places where a consensus is developing.”
Other Democratic candidates were critical of Obama. While most agreed Musharraf needed to be arm-twisted, they were less certain that a public declaration of intentions was helpful. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, the Democratic candidate with the most foreign relations experience, said, “They way to deal with it is not to announce it, but to do it.” The wider expectation among analysts is that Obama’s speech would mark the beginning of a Democratic foreign policy debate that would go beyond calls for a troop withdrawal from Iraq.