This article was last modified on September 11, 2007.

Obama’s Ignorance on Pakistan

Our leadership in America is one that has firm roots in American exceptionalism and ignorance of international law (or, in many cases, a an awareness and complete disregard altogether). George W. Bush’s war in Iraq is a clear example of going against the United Nations and laws of sovereignty. But he’s not unique in this: President Bill Clinton, in the words of the current President Bush, would “fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt” across country lines. This was likewise illegal, and quite ineffective (setting aside the attack on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Sudanese for no reason).

Senator Barack Obama is brilliant, and he is looking at foreign affairs in a light that most “experienced” politicians refuse to do. He calls for restrictions on Cuba to be loosened, he had the foresight to oppose the Iraq War and see the after-effects before the first strike was even launched. But even he makes blunders that could be costly to foreign relations, and one such blunder came in the summer of 2007.

Obama’s Position

On August 1, 2007, Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech on counterterrorism policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank in Washington. He had the following remarks, widely reported in the media:

“I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan … I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again… If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will.”

Pakistan took issue with Obama on two things: one, he allegedly underestimates the efforts Pakistan is putting in to catch the terrorists. Two, he doesn’t respect Pakistani sovereignty.

Pakistan’s second point is absolutely correct. America has a long history of entering foreign countries (particularly poor or Third World countries who can’t defend themselves) for our own ends. Would we launch a missile into downtown London? Of course not. So why should we in Pakistan, even if it’s in the rural areas? It’s not our right to send missiles into countries without their consent — that’s aggression. Obama’s seeming callousness disturbs me in this way.

In the Democratic primary debate on April 26, 2007, he had said the nuclear weapons option with Iran would not be taken off the table, eliciting an emotional response from Senator Mike Gravel. Seantor Obama made this same claim earlier on February 11 on 60 Minutes when asked about using military force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. His words were precisely, “I think we should keep all options on the table.” (Not that Obama is alone. Senator John Edwards spoke similar words in Israel on January 22, 2007: “Iran must know that the world won’t back down… To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options on the table. Let me reiterate – ALL options must remain on the table.”)

I understand that the reality of global politics suggests you keep “all options” open. But I don’t want a president who keeps it in mind — I want him to use diplomacy until there’s nothing left to do in order to secure our survival. Obama is allegedly a “liberal” (so is Hillary Clinton, allegedly) but when it comes to military strikes, they don’t talk any different than the conservatives when grilled. They want out of Iraq (although not nearly soon enough), but are more than willing to fight elsewhere.

Intervention is illegal regardless of where, and nuclear use never a legitimate option: a first-strike nuclear attack is clearly unacceptable, and there is no justification to launch a counter-strike. As for missile interception, any nuclear missile could be intercepted with a non-nuclear missile, making nuclear weapons essentially senseless to acquire and possess in any situation.

Pakistan’s first point, regarding their anti-terror efforts, is debatable. I don’t know how much Pakistan is or isn’t doing, and I suspect no one else is really positive on this, either. News sources inform me that the government lets the Taliban more or less roam free in the mountainous areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan (including Tora Bora). To some degree, this is certainly true. But the government cannot really be faulted — it’s not Pakistan’s job to hunt these people down for simply being an organization. The Taliban, love them or hate them, are a political assemblage more than they are a terrorist cell. Al-Qaeda, which is only vaguely connected to the Taliban, is a group of terrorists — but they are not the group who killed 3000 Americans like Obama says. Those individuals died on September 11, with the exception of a small handful of agents (such as bin Laden). The alleged terrorists in Pakistan haven’t actually planned or done anything and aren’t a real or imminent threat to America. If Pakistan catches them (preferably with a police unit and not with a tank) that’s great. But assisting American policies that do not benefit Pakistan should not be their top priority if other domestic issues are going on.

In follow-ups interviews, Obama said that “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance involving civilians.” This only further muddied the waters. Does this imply that nuclear weapons would be acceptable in non-civilian areas? And if so, how are we to define a “civilian” — as terrorists are generally not state-sponsored, they are by commonly accepted definition civilians (people not within the state military or police forces).

The Views of Others

Following Senator Obama’s claim that if Pakistan doesn’t act then America must, two of his colleagues were quick to chime in with resounding endorsements. Senator Hilary Clinton said much the same thing:

“If we had actionable intelligence that Osama bin Laden or other high-value targets were in Pakistan I would ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured. And that will be my highest priority because they pose the highest threat to America.”

Joe Biden had some concern with Obama’s words, but not his intentions. He felt the way to approach a situation was simply to react (which forces me to wonder: does this imply that Congress is not consulted?). Biden’s words were:

“The way to deal with it is not to announce it, it’s to do it. It’s not something you talk about; as president, it’s something I would do.”

Edwards Repeats Obama

After the Obama criticism from the media — and particularly the bloggers — died down, candidate John Edwards used the same language and received far less of a response. On September 8, 2007, while speaking at a campaign rally at Pace University in New York, he said, “I want to be clear about one thing. If we have actionable intelligence about imminent terrorist activity and the Pakistan Government refuses to act, we will… We ought to use our tremendous tools — diplomacy, arm sales, trade, foreign aid — to get states to shut down terror cells.”

We have discussed much of this already, and I will return to the problem with “arms sales” shortly.

What Else Obama Said

In all fairness to Senator Obama, we should note that the media got it both right and wrong when reporting on his statement. They were absolutely right to call him out for his implication of intervention. But they also did both him and the American public a disservice by omitting key areas of his speech that struck a more moderate and reasoned chord. Obama supporter Omaya Jones of Little Rock, Arkansas points out that the following was also said:

“And Pakistan needs more than F-16s to combat extremism. As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrases, my Administration will increase America’s commitment. We must help Pakistan invest in the provinces along the Afghan border, so that the extremists’ program of hate is met with one of hope. And we must not turn a blind eye to elections that are neither free nor fair — our goal is not simply an ally in Pakistan, it is a democratic ally.”

The Pakistan Peanuts Deal

Barack Obama is not the only one to have a Pakistan problem. Even the best-intentioned American leaders have had their share of trouble with Pakistan’s leadership in the past. Most notably, we will recall that President Jimmy Carter was unsure how to effectively handle Pakistan once it became clear they would be a necessary ally in the Cold War, given the Soviet Union’s advancement into Afghanistan.

Relations between America and Pakistan had reached a low point in 1979, after the burning down of a Pakistan-based US Embassy by fundamentalists. Not surprisingly, financial aid was lowered soon after this event. But, as stated, things reversed once the war front approached Pakistan.

The President of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was offered 400 million dollars (some reports say 325 million) by President Carter in early 1980 to help fund the anti-communist Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The funding was to be spread out over the following two years if approved by Congress. On January 17, President Zia called the offer “peanuts”, a clever and condescending pun given Carter’s background as a peanut farmer. The offer was officially rejected by Pakistan on March 5, 1980. Obaid ul Haq reports that Zia “felt that the Carter administration did not fully appreciate the gravity of the situation Pakistan faced”. [Rikhye: 40]

By January 1981, President Ronald Reagan had taken office. Reagan, a much stronger opponent of the Soviet Union (or ,as he called it, the “Evil Empire”), was willing to go the extra mile to stop the spread of so-called communism. Reagan “agreed to provide Pakistan with a $3.2 billion package of economic aid and military sales credit spread over a five year period, 1982 to 1987… In 1987, a second package was agreed upon which extended $4.2 billion in economic and military aid for the next five years, 1987-1992.” [Rikhye: 40]

Students of history, or even observant students of current affairs, know what happened next. Critics of this policy blame Carter and Reagan for the resulting instability of post-Soviet Afghan governments, which led to the rise of Islamic theocracy in the region (the Taliban), and also created many of the current problems with Islamic fundamentalism. Al-Qaeda, as we now know, rose from the ashes of the CIA-trained and Reagan-funded Mujahideen.

In essence, Carter’s and Reagan’s willingness to help Pakistan in the past with arms sales and military aid are the indirect cause of America’s and Obama’s need to confront Pakistan today. Would assisting them militarily today result in a yet another turn-around down the road?


Obama is a bright and promising young politician, but even he makes some slips of the tongue that ought best to be avoided. Intervention is a dangerous and illegal game, and the implementation of nuclear weapons — both actualized or merely discussed — is only problematic. We may recall the tagline of the 1983 film WarGames concerning nuclear war: “Where the only winning move is not to play”.

America must move forward beyond the barbarous policies of intervention and nuclear strikes. Unfortunately, with the current Democratic front-runners being Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton — one of which will likely win the presidency — we have little hope besides more of the same in January 2009.


Rikhye, Indar Jit, editor. Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq: External Involvement and Multilateral Options. International Peace Academy, 1989.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical, Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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