John Ibbitson, for the Globe and Mail
WASHINGTON — Is Barack Obama suddenly sounding so tough to counter criticism that he's a foreign-policy wuss, or because he's hoping to redefine the war on terror?
The answer is yes to both.
The candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination out-Bushed George W. Bush yesterday in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in which he vowed that, as president, he would unilaterally attack terrorists sheltering in Pakistan, even if the Pakistani government had not given its consent.
"It is time to write a new chapter in our response to 9/11," Mr. Obama declared. Calling the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan "the wild frontier of our globalized world," Mr. Obama said aid to Pakistan must be made conditional on the Pakistani government eradicating the Taliban and al-Qaeda bases in the region.
And "if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President [Pervez] Musharraf won't act, we will."
Mr. Obama's bullish declaration accords with the so-called Bush doctrine, which asserts the right of the United States to intervene in states that cannot or will not act against individuals or groups planning to harm it.
But thus far, President Bush has avoided unilateral action in Pakistan, out of concern that such action would destabilize the Musharraf regime.
The Illinois senator's statement drew a swift rebuke from the Pakistani government.
"These are serious matters and should not be used for point-scoring," Tasnim Aslam, a spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, said.
"Political candidates and commentators should show responsibility."
Mr. Obama would not limit to Pakistan the threat of unilateral action without a national government's consent.
"Beyond Pakistan, there is a core of terrorists - probably in the tens of thousands - who have made their choice to attack America," he said, and warned, "I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America."
Attacking terrorists in a state without the sanction of its government would violate international law and destabilize the affected government.
But Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, doesn't believe Mr. Obama was referring to a direct "boots on the ground" intervention, citing the use of air strikes as a potential way of eliminating a terrorist threat.
And he observed that "no leading presidential contender would ever deliver a foreign-policy statement, much less a speech, without having a domestic constituency in mind."
Indeed, Mr. Obama's speech may well have been an attempt to counter criticism from Senator Hillary Clinton, after Mr. Obama in a debate last week said he would be willing to meet with the leaders of states such as Syria or North Korea to resolve differences.
Ms. Clinton called the statements "irresponsible" and "naive," while Mr. Obama maintained the former first lady was wedded to the confrontational and counterproductive policies of the Bush administration.
Mr. Obama's speech might also have sought to serve another purpose. As the most prominent Democratic candidate who opposed the invasion of Iraq, he is seeking to recast the war on terrorism, returning it to its original mission of hunting down and destroying al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Iraq war, he maintained, has fatally distracted the United States from pursuing that mission, while damaging the U.S. reputation around the world.
The speech dwells at length with increasing international aid and bolstering intelligence-sharing as the best weapons for fighting the war on terrorism.
Aaron David Miller, a Mideast specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center, doubts there is much in Mr. Obama's approach with which Ms. Clinton could reasonably disagree.
There is, after all, virtual unanimity within both parties that, if the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden ever becomes known, the government should kill him, even if the attack is opposed by the national authority of the state he is in, and even if innocent civilians lose their lives.
In that context, Mr. Miller argued that even the difference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush was that of "using a two-by-four versus a surgical scalpel," in pursuing what are essentially similar goals.
If that is true of the Democrats versus the President, it is certainly true of the Democrats versus each other.
With a report from Agence France-Presse
International impact of past U.S. presidents
Since the Second World War, U.S. presidents have always taken a leading role in international affairs, whether they were prepared or not.
George W. Bush: Before taking office, the failed Texas baseball-franchise owner and oilman had rarely travelled outside the United States. His foreign policy has been marked by unilateral decisions, pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and land mines treaty, and invading Iraq with limited international support.
Bill Clinton: Much was made during the campaign of his lack of military and foreign experience, but he became heavily involved in peace efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. He used the U.S. military to quell wars in the former Yugoslavia, but was criticized for leaving Somalia to fall into chaos and for failing to respond to the genocide in Rwanda.
George H. W. Bush: As former ambassador to the United Nations, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to China and director of the CIA, he had already cultivated relationships with many heads of state before taking office. His presidency was marked by a successful war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, but a disastrous military effort in Somalia.
Ronald Reagan: A foreign-policy neophyte, he was driven by strong anti-Communist beliefs and lent support to anti-Communist efforts in places such as Angola, Afghanistan and Central America. His hard-line policies initially raised Cold War tensions, but the arms race he prompted is credited with helping to bring about the breakup of the Soviet Union and fall of the Berlin Wall shortly after he left office.
Jimmy Carter: For a president with a background in farming and state politics, he had a considerable impact on foreign affairs. His early success brokering a peace accord between Israel and Egypt and securing the Panama Canal treaty was overshadowed by the Iran hostage affair.
Gerald Ford: He began his presidency with no foreign experience and his short time in office was hampered by congressional measures to limit presidential foreign-policy powers. He did manage to continue Richard Nixon's efforts to thaw Cold War tensions and woo China.
Richard Nixon: Despite pre-presidential experience that was mainly domestic, he focused on foreign policy and ended the Vietnam War, brought China closer to the West and secured the first agreements on nuclear-weapons control with the Soviet Union.
Lyndon Johnson: A career politician, he was another swaggering Texan with little experience in foreign affairs. Despite efforts to negotiate peace in Vietnam, the U.S. fell deeper into a quagmire in what he called that "damn little pissant country."
John F. Kennedy: The son of an ambassador and a well-travelled student of international affairs, he was an advocate of peaceful development, who nonetheless deepened U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and brought the United States to the brink of war with the Soviet Union.
Dwight Eisenhower: He became president after a long military career with postings in Asia, Africa and Europe. Rejecting the notion of "Fortress America" safe behind its nuclear shield, he maintained a dialogue with Soviet leaders and presided over a U.S. at peace for more than seven years.