Obama on Terrorism:The Experts Weigh In
Today, in a speech billed as a "comprehensive strategy to fight global terrorism," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) spoke about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, removing troops from Iraq and increasing efforts against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Below, experts in the field of terrorism and foreign policy assess Obama's take on what he called "The War We Need to Win." (Read Dan Balz's report on the speech here.)
Richard A. Clarke, former White House counterterrorism official, who has briefed Obama on terrorism related issues: I believe his speech is a comprehensive, sophisticated approach to terrorism. I was glad to see it recognized the importance of stopping repressive police and intelligence activities in countries threatened by al-Qaeda and terrorism. I'm also glad to see him say clearly that we are not at war with Islam but must partner with Muslims threatened by al-Qaeda. On Pakistan, I think it must be true anywhere that if we know of high value targets and the host government will not act, we have to do so.
Teresita C. Schaffer, Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' South Asia program and former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka: In general, much of what he said is actually very much in line with U.S. policy, including the conditioning of military aid to Pakistan, which is about to be put into law. His statement that we would be willing to act if President Musharraf isn't, is not dramatically different from the current administration's attitude. Most members of the administration don't like to talk about this, and look on it as an absolute last resort. What he said isn't that different from what Frances Townsend [White House homeland security adviser]was saying over the weekend. He did propose additional economic assistance, and suggested that we ought to be emphasizing economic rather than military aid. This is a good suggestion.
Also worth noting from this speech was his proposal to reshape U.S military capabilities and to beef up diplomatic capabilities for handling post-insurgency situations.
I was a diplomat for 30 years and the idea of strengthening our diplomatic ability to deal with these complex situations is a sound one. You don't just send in the army-there's a whole civilian aspect as well. His emphasis on public diplomacy seemed like it could in some ways would take us back to a time when public diplomacy was a significant part of the budget, which it currently is not.
Lisa Curtis, senior South Asia research fellow at the Heritage Foundation: His mention of conditioning assistance to Pakistan is not new--Congress passed legislation to do that last week. I would sound a cautionary note on this, however. In 1990, the U.S. abruptly cut off assistance to Pakistan because of its nuclear program. That had a very negative impact on U.S. relations with Pakistan. The Pakistanis felt betrayed. They thought this was unfair treatment and that the U.S. seemed like a fickle partner. If anybody knows that history, they would understand that conditioning aid through legislation is just going to bring up those memories, and raise doubts about the U.S. reliability as a partner, particularly at a time when the U.S. needs to support Pakistan in its efforts against extremism.
Peter Bergen, author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know:" Overall it was a very strong speech. Here is a minor criticism: While there is no doubt that conflict zones can breed terrorism, the 9/11 plot was actually planned in Hamburg. The idea that weak and failingstates are causes of terrorism is wrong. There is in fact overwhelming academic literature that demonstrates the reverse is true. Terrorism is a sort of bourgeois endeavor. On a related point, the idea that madrassas are a big problem for violence against the United States is also wrong. Madrassas lead to problems regionally, and are a big problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not in terms of terrorism against the United States.
Daniel Markey, former State Department official, current senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: If you were to be as charitable as you can possibly be about his read of things--by looking for diplomacy where there isn't much--he is saying if Musharraf will not help us, then we will act alone. It is hard to dispute that basic statement, but by implication Obama is building in an assumption that Musharraf is unlikely to act. Politically -- in terms of US electoral prospects, this is just fine. It's probably the only thing he can say in the context of the upcoming primaries. But in the diplomatic sense it's unfortunate because it sends a message about our relationship with Pakistan that undercuts the partnership we're trying to build. It says that we don't trust Musharraf, even when it comes to hitting the top leadership of al-Qaeda - the very group that has tried to assassinate him on multiple occasions.
In another part of his speech, I think that Obama makes a very strong case for greater US commitment to Afghanistan. This is a positive, constructive agenda that also has political bite because it presses the point that the Bush Administration dropped the ball on the real threat when it turned towards Iraq. That aside, Obama's argument has the potential to be a unifying goal for Americans on both sides of the aisle: winning the war in Afghanistan and closing the door on the threat that hit us on 9/11. More military, economic, and political commitment from the US will also pay dividends in when we approach our allies - especially those in NATO - to make a greater sacrifice. And it sends a constructive signal to Afghans and their neighbors (including Pakistan): the US will be there to help you finish the job, so don't give up hope or continue to hedge your bets.
Michael F. Scheuer, the founding head of the CIA's bin Laden unit: Senator Obama must have left a couple zeroes off his plan for reinforcements. Two brigades -- which is about 6,000 men -- will not make a lick of difference in Afghanistan, which is a country the size of Texas, with the highest mountains on earth, a hostile population, and a growing Islamist insurgency. If Obama starts talking about 100 brigades -- about 300,000 men -- then the public might be able to assume he means business. Otherwise, he is just blowing smoke. Obama and all the other candidates in the other parties constantly say that "we have tried the military option and it does not work." This of course is a bald lie; U.S. military power has been used most daintily in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the military power we have delivered in both places so far is the best we can do, then American taxpayers have been monumentally swindled in the amount of taxes they have paid for their military during the past 25 years. And another billion dollars for aid for Afghan reconstruction would just be another billion wasted. It appears that Obama and his fellow candidates in both parties have not learned that programs for economic recovery, internal stability, and nation-building cannot be started with any hope of effectiveness and durability until the enemy has been definitively annihilated. If Obama is right and the military option has failed, then more aid is just throwing money away because -- as all can see -- the enemy is growing in size and ferocity and shows no signs of being on the edge of annihilation.
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