More Greenery From Obama
Yesterday I gave a “thumbs up” to Obama's speech at the Wilson Center, wherein he laid out a damn good balance between soft power and hard power in dealing with the Islamic world and fighting terrorists. One of the weaknesses in what Obama said yesterday however was his explicit willingness to use American forces to attack suspected Al Qaeda strongholds inside Pakistan, apparently with or without Pakistani approval and involvement. It is understandable that Obama would want to show a more aggressive side to his thinking after last week’s exchange with Hillary on talking with unfriendly regimes. But talking openly about military strikes inside the borders of a nominal ally seems upon reflection to be an overreaction from last week, reinforcing suggestions that Obama is relatively inexperienced and prone to thinking out loud too much, when some things are better left unsaid and conveyed in broader, more implied terms.
Now we have today’s Obama “speaking out loud” moment. It was inevitable that a day after he said he would use military force inside Pakistan to go after Al Qaeda that the media would query him to see how far that thinking went, providing Exhibit A on what talking too clearly will get you from a shark-pack media. He said the following in response to a question from the AP:
"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance," Obama said, with a pause, "involving civilians." Then he quickly added, "Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."
Obama was responding to a question by the Associated Press about whether there was any circumstance where he would be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat terrorism and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Obama then tried to recover.
"There's been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss," Obama said after a Capitol Hill breakfast with constituents.
When asked whether his answer also applied to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, he said it did.
Wrong answer Senator. No one wants to use nuclear weapons, but no commander in chief should be telling Al Qaeda’s senior leadership that they are safe from battlefield tactical nukes. Keep in mind we are not talking about Hiroshima here, or indiscriminate bombs that will incinerate whole cities and kill thousands of civilians, but rather tactical nukes against a remote hide-out like Tora Bora.
Ben Smith at The Politico got a follow-up from Obama’s campaign in which they provided the question asked by the AP, but all that did was confirm that 1) Obama issued a broad answer that he shouldn’t have given; and 2) Obama may have missed the nuance behind their question about tactical, less indiscriminate weapons in remote hide-outs.
When Hillary was asked to comment, she cut Obama some slack while refusing to give an absolute answer to a hypothetical.
QUESTION: Senator Clinton, Senator Obama today said that the use of nuclear weapons would be off the table in Afghanistan or Pakistan. I'm wondering if you agree with that.
CLINTON: Well, I'm not going to answer hypotheticals. But let's find Osama bin Laden and his leadership first.
And I think that presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents, since the Cold War, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.
But I think we'll leave it at that, because I don't know the circumstances in which he was responding.
Note how Hillary kept the focus on not answering a hypothetical and the need to find Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership.
Regardless of any well-founded objection Obama has to using nuclear weapons, committing to getting Al Qaeda and Bin Laden is more important than making an anti-nuclear statement. There is no reason to send any specific message at all on this, and a seasoned approach would be to say:
1. I won’t respond to hypotheticals;
2. We expect all countries in the region, especially our allies (read: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) to do everything possible to step up their efforts to fight and eliminate Al Qaeda, and
3. Unlike the current administration, I will do whatever is necessary to find and eliminate Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s leadership. There will be no Tora Boras or weak knees in going after the 9/11 criminals on my watch.
That's it; say nothing more.