Piling on on Obama

It's OK to think big thoughts about al-Qaida in Pakistan. Just don't open your mouth.

Published August 8, 2007 12:28PM (EDT)

The consensus is in, at least among some presidential candidates whose names aren't Barack Obama: It may be OK to go after high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan even if President Pervez Musharraf won't, but you just can't go around saying that you'd do so.

Laying out his five-point counterterrorism plan last week, Obama said: "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains [in Pakistan] 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-Qaida leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

At Tuesday night's Democratic forum in Chicago, moderator Keith Olbermann asked Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd to back up his claim that Obama's pronouncements on foreign policy had been "confused and confusing." Dodd piled on, condescendingly.

"Well, let me say on these matters here, I spent 26 years on the Foreign Relations Committee dealing with these matters, almost every major foreign policy debate," he said. "Words mean things. We've got to be very careful about language that is used in terms of the danger and harm it can do to our nation. My view was, when issues were being raised about Pakistan, understand that while Gen. Musharraf is no Thomas Jefferson, he may be the only thing that stands between us and having an Islamic fundamentalist state in that country." Dodd said a lot more words about Obama after that. Among them: "highly irresponsible" and "wrong."

Obama defended himself by saying it was "just common sense" to say that "if we have actionable intelligence on al-Qaida operatives, including bin Laden, and President Musharraf cannot act, then we should." He then reminded Dodd that Dodd had authorized the use of force against Saddam Hussein, who -- say what you will about him -- did not kill 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

Hillary Clinton -- who, at another point in the forum, said she was staying above the fray and "taking it all in" -- took the next shot at Obama. She said that "it may well be" that the United States has to pursue al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan without Musharraf's help, but that "people running for president" shouldn't "engage in hypotheticals." "I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that, and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamist extremists who are in bed with al-Qaida and Taliban," Clinton said. Warning that Pakistan has nuclear weapons that could be used against U.S. interests in a post-Musharraf world, Clinton added: "You can think big, but remember you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president, because it has consequences across the world. And we don't need that right now."

Some members of the Soldier Field audience booed, which may be why they don't let the public into the daily press briefings at the State Department. Asked Tuesday if Obama's remarks about Pakistan -- coupled with Clinton's comments about the use of nuclear weapons and Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo's musings about bombing Mecca and Medina -- might make life difficult for U.S. diplomats, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "Look, I think it's pretty clear that everybody understands that there is a presidential race going on, and they can sort out for themselves the various remarks that are coming out. And the various candidates will speak for themselves as to the reasoning behind their remarks. I'm not going to get into that. It's going to be a long campaign series, and I'm not going to start doing that."

Unsatisfied, a reporter asked McCormack if the State Department "would prefer" that the candidates "shut up ... when it comes to sensitive issues like that." McCormack's response: "Look, this is a democracy. There's a thing called free speech. But there's also a thing called the executive branch, and we have a responsibility for what U.S. government policy is."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Christopher Dodd D-conn. Hillary Rodham Clinton