Obama, McCain underline policy differences on Pakistan

September 27, 2008

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain stressed important differences in approach to Pakistan in their first debate.


On the surface, Obama advocated a tougher line, as he has done since the start of his campaign. “If the United States has al Qaeda, (Osama) bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out,” he said. He talked about the $10 billion Washington had given to Pakistan in aid over the last seven years, saying it had failed to rid the border region of al Qaeda and the Taliban

“You have got to deal with Pakistan,” the Illinois senator said, and I coudn’t help thinking how those words will play out in a nation already under immense pressure from both the militants  and the United States.

McCain was more considered, saying he would work with the Pakistan government and that new President Asif Ali Zardari’s  (whose name he seemed to have mis-pronounced) had his plate  full. And he accused his rival of threatening Pakistan with military strikes. “You don’t say that aloud. If you have to do things, you have  to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government,” he  said.

Victims of a hotel bombing in Islamabad

As the New York Times said, Obama’s position is closer to President George W. Bush who this summer is reported to have authorised American special forces to cross the Afghan-Pakistan border into Pakistan’s tribal areas that al Qaeda and the Taliban have used as a sanctuary.

At its core, the candidates’ argument was about the “central front” in the war on terror. Obama said it was, and always has been, Pakistan’s tribal areas and the neighboring areas of Afghanistan. Iraq, he argued, was a dangerous distraction. McCain made the case that Iraq was the central front, noting that bin Laden himself had declared it the battle ground with America.

But Obama isn’t about to be attacking Pakistan and it would be a mischaracterisation to say he was advocating that position, says Changing up Pakistan blog. During the debate the Democrat made no mention of an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty, on its people, or on the government, it said.

So how much is the difference between Obama and McCain’s positions on Pakistan one of presentation rather than substance? And equally importantly, would Obama’s strong words on Pakistan come back to haunt him if he were elected president and then compelled to carry through on his threat?


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