We Talked About Stuff We Don’t Talk About Much

After a day or so to think about the debate, two things stand out to me. First, McCain absolutely killed Obama on "preconditions" for negotiating with rogue states. Obama’s attempts at splitting the difference between "preconditions" and "preparation" were difficult to follow and appeared euphemistic and disingenuous. Second, Obama took what I consider to be an unassailable position — one that he’s held to for over a year — that under certain conditions of intransigence from the Pakistani government, his administration will order military and/or intelligence activities in Pakistan against al-Qaeda. McCain first signaled a substantive disagreement, then backed away from it, and finally decided that whatever the merits of the position, you don’t say stuff like that in public.

These two developments are related. Or at least they’re related within the context of The Obama Doctrine. Explanation after the jump.

So when I was researching Obama’s foreign policy team earlier in the year, some of its members highlighted a certain development to me from the early days of the Democratic primary. It appeared to me as both a test of Obama’s convictions and, not coincidentally, an indictment of the way the foreign-policy establishment operates. I may as well quote myself:

Most of the members of Obama’s foreign-policy team expressed frustration that they had taken a well-considered and seemingly anodyne position on Iraq and suffered for it. Obama had something similar happen to him in the spring and summer of 2007. He was attacked from the left and the right for saying three things that should not have been controversial: that if he had actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan but no cooperation from the Pakistani government, he would take out the jihadists; that he wouldn’t use nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps; and that he would be willing to meet with leaders of rogue states in his first year as president. "No one [of Obama’s critics] had thought through the policy because that was the quote-unquote naïve and weak position, so they said it was a bad position to take," recalls Ben Rhodes, the adviser who writes Obama’s foreign-policy speeches. "And it was a seminal moment, because Obama himself said, ‘No, I’m right about this!’"

Why’s this important? First, because it shows Obama’s willingness to think through a position from the perspective of first principles; and second, because it shows Obama’s unwillingness to back down when criticized by those who aren’t so willing. In a world where wars get started because one side lies about the rationale for invading another country and the other side acquiesces out of political cowardice, that sort of backbone is crucial for a leader.

So take the second point first. McCain surely did not want to make the case that al-Qaeda should continue unmolested in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. (Not even Bush — after a loooooong period of lassitude and miscalculation — thinks that!) But to acknowledge that would be to concede two points McCain can’t afford to concede, based on his critique of Obama as out of his depth on foreign policy: First, that Obama has the right strategy against al-Qaeda; and second, that McCain endorsed the Iraq war at the expense of the destruction of al-Qaeda. So instead McCain said this: "[Obama] said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. 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."

Over the past week, the Pakistani government has let its soldiers shoot at ours. To take the most benign interpretation available: Pakistan is now in a post-Musharraf situation of upheaval, where an untested civilian leader and an untested Army chief will spend — my guess — the next year working out the boundaries of their power, partnership and rivalry; the wild card will be what Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, which created the Taliban, does. During this period, subcontracting the destruction of al-Qaeda to the Pakistanis is a fool’s errand. Whether McCain believes this… I mean, the record suggests he doesn’t, but who really knows? All we know for sure from the debate is that McCain doesn’t believe you should talk about Pakistan. For someone who has shown an inclination to involve the U.S. in most every war possible except the one against the people who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 to now say "My policy is for you to be quiet and trust me" isn’t acceptable.

This is probably better put in the context of a different post, but I need to say something about the merits of the case: military action in Pakistan is a really big deal. It is potentially destabilizing. To be euphemistic about that would be irresponsible. It’s the worstest-case of worst case scenarios (absent the still-hypothetical prospect of a nuclear-armed al-Qaeda). And yet al-Qaeda has reconstituted a safe haven in Pakistan and, by the accounts of U.S. intelligence, continues to strengthen its capabilities there. When Musharraf was firmly in control — that is, when the Islamabad government had its freest hand to deal with al-Qaeda — al-Qaeda’s presence actually metastasized. It will only get worse with a weak Islamabad government. If this is acceptable, a potential leader ought to say so. Either be direct with the American people that the risks of taking action in the FATA against al-Qaeda outweigh the benefits, or be direct that this potentially awful scenario might, in fact, be what’s necessary to destroy the organization. To pick a third option — uh, maybe, whatever, just don’t say anything about this! — is cowardly. McCain has taken the cowardly position, and Obama has taken the courageous one.

But if Obama held to the Obama Doctrine on al-Qaeda, he didn’t on the "preconditions" point. McCain demagogued it — "if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a ‘stinking corpse,’ and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments" — and Obama had no compelling rejoinder. He equivocated on whether he’d meet with Ahmedinejad or a different Iranian leader. Most importantly, he never actually explained what he meant by "no preconditions" for negotiating, which is what gives McCain’s demagoguery its force. (Now, I think I understand what Obama means: he means he’ll negotiate with Iran without first demanding Iran give in to all of the U.S.’s demands, as Bush insisted for seven years. But what if I’m wrong? Obama really ought to clarify the point.) While Obama didn’t exactly back down on "preconditions," he didn’t offer a persuasive rationale for why Americans ought to embrace his position, either.

All told, I think "The Obama Doctrine" prefigured the debate fairly well, much as I continue to believe it’ll be a serviceable guide to what Obama will do on the global stage as president. But that doesn’t mean that the Doctrine is a Rosetta Stone, unlocking the secrets of geopolitics and guiding the country to peace and prosperity. The world is too awful and unpredictable for that. What the Doctrine offers is a maturity, a strength, a wisdom and a humanity lacking from its alternatives. In order to adopt it, though, Obama will have to argue again and again and again for its merits — without fear and without apology.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman