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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 02/21/2008

Bombs Away!

By Michael Dobbs


Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 19, 2008.

"Will the next president have the experience? Or will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan?"
--John McCain, rally in Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 19, 2008.

Senator McCain was clearly referring to Barack Obama on Tuesday night when he lambasted an unnamed rival for his lack of experience on military matters. He depicted the Illinois senator as a foreign policy naif who was willing to attack U.S. allies, while at the same time "sitting down without preconditions" to talk with America's enemies. In the original version of his remarks, distributed to reporters, McCain said that Obama had talked about "invading" Pakistan, but this was changed at the last minute to merely "bombing" the country.

Has McCain summarized Obama's position accurately?

The Facts

The GOP frontrunner was referring to an Obama speech from August 1, 2007, in which the Democratic candidate outlined his ideas for fighting the war on terrorism. During that speech, Obama noted that many al-Qaeda leaders had found sanctuary in the remote tribal region of northwest Pakistan. He then said the following:

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 [Pakistan] President Musharraf won't act, we will.

In other words, Obama was talking about bombing well-defined al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan upon receipt of "actionable intelligence," not the country in general. As it happened, this was pretty much the scenario that played out in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 29 when the CIA got word of the precise location of a top al-Qaeda leader, Abu Laith al-Libi, near the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. According to the Post's reconstruction of the incident, CIA and Air Force operatives fired two Hellfire missiles at the target, killing al-Libi, without the prior approval of the Pakistani government.

Some commentators speculated yesterday that Obama is more hawkish on going after al-Qaeda than McCain. But this is apparently not the case. I asked McCain's foreign policy aide, Randy Scheunemann, if the senator supported the attack on al-Libi? "Yes," he replied briskly. Even if there was no prior consultation with the Pakistani government? "Yes."

So why does McCain think Obama was naive in proposing to go after "high-value terrorist targets" in Pakistan?

"The difference is between telegraphing what you are going to do and actually doing it," Scheunemann replied. "You don't telegraph these things in advance."

McCain echoed this thought at a press conference yesterday in Columbus, Ohio:

"The best idea is not broadcast what you are going to do, that's naïve...You work with the other country that is your ally and friend, which Pakistan is...You don't broadcast and say you are going to bomb the country without their permission or without consulting them. This is the fundamentals of the conduct of national security policy. I believe in working with the other country."

The GOP frontrunner has not always been so disciplined when talking about bombing other countries. He caused some controversy in April last year when he suggested new lyrics for the Beach Boy song "Barbara Ann":"Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran."

The Pinocchio Test

There was a subtle shift in the McCain rhetoric between Tuesday and Wednesday. The Tuesday night victory speech in Columbus, Ohio, caricatured Obama's position on bombing Pakistan to the point of seriously distorting it. Two Pinocchios.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | February 21, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, War on Terror  
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