In a strikingly bold speech about terrorism Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama called not only for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but a redeployment of troops into Afghanistan and even Pakistan — with or without the permission of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
"I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges," Obama said, "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. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
Obama's mention of an "al Qaeda leadership meeting" refers to a classified military operation planned in early 2005 to kill al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden's top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri in Pakistan's tribal regions. First reported in The New York Times earlier this month, the mission was "aborted at the last minute after top Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan, according to intelligence and military officials."
In many ways, the speech is counterintuitive; Obama, one of the more liberal candidates in the race, is proposing a geopolitical posture that is more aggressive than that of President Bush. It comes at a time in Obama's campaign when the freshman senator is drawing more financial support from more voters than any other candidate, though he has yet to vault from his second-place position in the polls. One of the reasons for that is that the Democratic front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, is seen as more experienced and in some ways stronger, a perspective Obama wishes to change.
The speech, delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., seems an attempt by Obama to ramp up his campaign to the next phase, where he hopes to seem not only a youthful idealist, but a president who would pursue a muscular foreign policy and protect the United States from terrorist attack.
One of the ways he hopes to achieve this is by pointing out the inherent flaws in the complicated U.S.-Pakistan relationship, an uneasy alliance based in part on U.S. fears of an Islamist government that might replace Musharraf. But Obama proposed in his speech a more aggressive stance with that nuclear nation, making the "hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and 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."
Additionally Obama called for at least two additional brigades to redeploy to Afghanistan to re-enforce U.S. counterterrorism operations and support NATO's efforts against the Taliban. This would be accompanied by political and economic efforts, Obama said, pledging to increase nonmilitary U.S. aid to Afghanistan by a whopping $1 billion.
The shift from Iraq to Afghanistan and possibly even Pakistan is one of five elements he called for in his speech. The other four are improving diplomacy for the purpose of counterterrorism and counterproliferation; creating a $5 billion Shared Security Partnership Program that he will say will "forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks around the globe; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland."
The speech comes one week after Obama engaged in an increasingly heated back and forth with Clinton about whether a president should readily agree to meet with leaders of countries hostile to the United States. Obama said he would, Clinton said she wouldn't, and a forceful back and forth ensued.
Clinton fired the first salvo, calling Obama's willingness to meet with men like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or Cuban dictator Fidel Castro "irresponsible and frankly naive." Obama fired back, saying "If anything is irresponsible and naive, it was authorizing George Bush to send 160,000 young American men and women into Iraq apparently without knowing how they were going to get out."
At a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Obama implied her policy would be "Bush-Cheney Lite." Clinton took to CNN to respond, saying their debate "is getting kind of silly. I've been called a lot of things, but I've never been called Bush or Cheney. You have to ask what happened to the 'politics of hope.'"
In the speech excerpts, Obama makes no mention of Clinton directly, though he implicates her decision to vote to authorize use of force in Iraq as aiding al Qaeda. "By refusing to end the war in Iraq," he said, "President Bush is giving the terrorists what they really want and what the Congress voted to give them in 2002: a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."
Obama, whose father was Muslim, makes clear that he does not share the views of Democrats who downplay the risk of Islamist terrorism. In language rare for a Democratic presidential candidate, Obama talked about Muslims who seek to create a repressive caliphate. "To defeat this enemy, we must understand who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for."
The Obama campaign says those assisting with the speech constituted a mix of a new generation of national security and foreign policy experts such as Samantha Power, a professor of global leadership and public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide"; Susan Rice, member of the National Security Council for President Clinton; Greg Craig, former Clinton administration undersecretary of state and director of policy planning; and more experienced old hands, such as President Clinton's National Security Adviser Tony Lake, former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and retired Maj. Gen. General Jonathan Gration.