Thursday, August 02, 2007

From Bambi to Rambo

As a political document, Barack Obama’s war-on-terror policy speech was a shrewd repair job.

After being dogged for weeks by perception – nurtured in two Democratic debates - that he, as president, would shy away from the swift application of military force, Obama responded in his high-profile speech yesterday by essentially positioning himself to the right of President Bush. Goodbye Bambi, hello Rambo.

Whereas Bush has made little headway in combating the al Qaeda leaders and followers who are hiding in Pakistan, in part because he respects President Pervez Musharraf’s delicate political position, Obama is declaring that he’s fed up with the U.S.A. playing Mr. Nice Guy. The money quote in the speech:

“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 3000 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 (a reference to a report that the Bush team pulled the plug on a planned raid). If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

That’s quite a dose of testosterone. He’s essentially saying that, in order to protect the homeland, he would dispatch U.S troops to breach the sovereignty of a shaky ally, even at the risk of destabilizing Musharraf and perhaps inflaming the Muslim world. Politically speaking, this is Obama saying, “No way you’re gonna paint ME as a wimp.” To underscore his machismo, he even borrowed from Bush’s 2000 convention acceptance speech; the cocksure GOP candidate’s constant refrain was “They have not led. We will.”

Clearly, he was aiming to demonstrate to future swing voters that he would be tough enough to lead America in the post-9/11 world – and that it’s not a contradiction to simultaneously sound hawkish on al Qaeda and dovish on the war in Iraq. His arguably best line was about “getting out of Iraq and onto the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Some of his Democratic rivals are carping at his speech – Chris Dodd says that Obama’s warning about Pakistan is “dangerous and irresponsible” – and there is ire among many on the left that their main guy seems so primed for battle. But Obama had a response for that as well, in the test of the speech, when he managed to sound both hawkish and anti-Bush: “Just because the president misrepresents our enemies does not mean that we don’t have them.”

If the wimp image was a hairline crack in his candidacy, Obama has sought to caulk it. Politically, he has probably done well. Substantively, however, it’s debatable whether his Pakistan remarks have any real merit. Candidates generally say a lot of things that are primarily designed to enhance their electoral prospects; then if they win, they often discover that what works on the soapbox is worthless on the job.

In 1960, candidate John F. Kennedy positioned himself to the right of opponent Richard Nixon, claiming that the GOP hadn’t been tough enough on the Soviets, that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed the Soviets to outpace America in the arms race (a false charge) , and that, as president, he’d be tougher at fighting the communists. Yet within months of being sworn in, he presided over the Bay of Pigs disaster and turned in a bad performance in his summit meeting with the Soviet premier. Kennedy later said, “he beat the hell out of me.”

And in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton sought to establish some rhetorical toughness by rebuking the senior President Bush for not launching air strikes against Serbia, which at the time was fomenting hostilities in the former Yugoslavia. Then when he got into office, he didn’t launch air strikes either, due largely to the complexities of the crisis.

So it would not be a surprise if Obama, if nominated and elected, felt compelled to heed advice that he refrain from sending troops into Pakistan. He may have done himself some good on the stump yesterday, but smart statecraft is another matter entirely.