Belmont Club

Words mean something

Passport, the blog section of Foreign Policy is suggesting that Barack Obama may have put his foot in his mouth by saying on the campaign trail that the US had the sovereign right to attack terrorist targets in Pakistan if there were compelling reasons to do so. He was asked at a recent press conference if India had the right to do the same and equivocated.  But extricating himself from an awkward situation, the President-elect wiggled out.

I think that sovereign nations, obviously, have a right to protect themselves. Beyond that, I don’t want to comment on the specific situation that’s taking place in South Asia right now. I think it is important for us to let the investigators do their jobs and make a determination in terms of who was responsible for carrying out these heinous acts.

But he didn’t wiggle out all the way: the Times of India is reporting it as a “tacit endorsement”. It wrote, “although Obama said he did not want to comment on the specific situation involving India and Pakistan, his tacit endorsement of New Delhi adopting the same policy was circumscribed by two caveats: first, let the investigators reach definite conclusions about the Mumbai carnage, and second, see if Pakistan will follow through with its commitment to eliminate terrorism.” But the damage if any, is slight, because India is unlikely to openly strike at Pakistan in any case; at least not while there’s hope Islamabad will crack down on its resident terrorists. It’s a rhetorical close call and nothing more.

But it does highlight two things. One was what John McCain called the danger of brandishing a gun in public without being willing to pull the trigger. He told Obama, during his debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy:

if you’re going to aim a gun at somebody, George Shultz, our great secretary of state, told me once, you’d better be prepared to pull the trigger. … Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government.

The reason Obama’s threat to go into Pakistan openly is problematic is because Barack Obama is probably going to work with the government of Pakistan. If he puts 20,000 more troops in Afghanistan, he’s not going to pull the trigger and probably will work assiduously to keep India from doing it either. And if he does authorize strikes in Pakistan, why a little bird did it. International politics is to a considerable degree an exercise in hypocrisy and deniability. Sooner or later Barack Obama will have to surround himself with a bodyguard of lies unless he’s willing to “pull the trigger”.

The second danger is more subtle and perhaps unavoidable. Any strategy to enlist Pakistan’s cooperation against the AQ by encouraging good relations with India will at some point link the War on Terror with the dispute in Kashmir. The GWOT, if it is still on, is already complicated. Many academics intone that radical Islam is inextricably driven by “Palestine” and the existence of Israel. Now, by implying a linkage between the Northwest Frontier Provinces and Kashmir we’ve added one more turd to the punchbowl. The events that came to the forefront on September 11 are slowly but surely expanding their boundaries to encompass all the grievances of Islam — Sunni versus Shia, Arab versus Jew, Pakistani versus Indian.

Susan Rice, Obama’s nominee for Ambassador the the UN (now a cabinet-rank job) may be about to add one more. She has compared the need to save the Africans in Darfur to the need to save the Jews from Hitler. Writing in the Washington Post she said:

Some 450,000 innocent human beings are already dead, and more than 2.5 million have fled their homes. Now Sudan is launching a major offensive in Darfur. After three years of fruitless negotiation and feckless rhetoric, it’s time to go beyond unenforced U.N. resolutions to a new kind of resolution: the firm resolve to act. …

History demonstrates that there is one language Khartoum understands: the credible threat or use of force. After Sept. 11, 2001, when President Bush issued a warning to states that harbor terrorists, Sudan — recalling the 1998 U.S. airstrike on Khartoum — suddenly began cooperating on counterterrorism. It’s time to get tough with Sudan again.

Likening the Darfurians to the Jews would require likening a certain ideology to Nazism and nobody is even willing to mention that ideology. It will be quite a trick to tackle the problem in Darfur without adding yet another ingredient to the punch. Besides, there’s that gun being brandished again, and its unclear whether Susan Rice or Barack Obama would do anything more than wave it around. The credible use of force can only be threatened by one power, the United States. Nobody is Khartoum is going to tremble in their sandals at the prospect of being chastised by a European army. “Credible force” is a synonym for US force. And that’s not going to happen either, at least not under UN auspices with Russia and China on the Security Council telling Susan Rice what they think.

At some point the Obama administration is going to realize it can’t keep writing unfunded verbal checks. Sooner or later they will either have to deposit money in the bank or let the check bounce. You can only kite them for so long.  History has forced American Presidents to be either Jimmy Carters, Ronald Reagans or George W. Bush’s. They can also be Harry Trumans or Franklin Roosevelts. But other than Jimmy Carter they all pulled the trigger. Question: can India do it? Oh, wait …