Friday, August 03, 2007

Obama's "Unseriousness"

Following a chain of blog links that I don't care to spell out, I learned that earlier in the week Obama revealed he'd be unwilling to use nuclear weapons to bomb terrorist training camps in Pakistan. Here's what he said:

"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance" in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Obama said. He then added that he would not use such weapons in situations "involving civilians."

"Let me scratch that," he said. "There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."

Here's David Yepsen's response to Obama's comments:

Obama’s stumbling answer as to when, or if, he’d use nuclear weapons to hunt down terrorists just underscored his inexperience in foreign policy and defense questions. Since the Cold War, American presidents haven’t been too specific about that question since answering removes some of the deterrent effect of the weapons.

The correct answer to a question about use of nuclear weapons is not to answer so as to keep U.S. adversaries guessing. In 1972, then Iowa Senator Harold Hughes dropped out of the race for president after he announced he couldn’t morally use nuclear weapons.

Obama was roundly denounced by the other Democratic candidates and, once again, has said something that makes him look not ready for the White House. He’s been battling that image problem since the beginning of the race and this comment does nothing to instill confidence. While pacifist Democrats might like it, it’s doubtful it would play to a larger general election electorate that expects an American president to use all tools in the toolbox to defend the country.

But now he’s created a cloud and he’ll have to spend time assuring Americans that he really would be a good defender of the country and diligent in hunting down our adversaries.

Sigh. This is the sort of foreign policy "analysis" that has ruined both our foreign policy and politics in this country. All Obama said was that he'd be unwilling to use nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps in Pakistan. Please dear reader, explain to me how this is a irresponsible statement. Imagine that we found a horde of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters hovering in a camp somewhere in North Waziristan, and that in that camp, resided their families. Imagine that the camp is not that far away from a village or a town where thousands of people live. Now, imagine we lob a nuke at it, killing thousands of people, most of them not terrorists, and sending radioactive poison into the air to drop willy-nilly across Central Asia where it will sicken and kill thousands more. Does that sound pretty horrifying to you? Do you think you could find a majority of Americans who could support just such an act? I don't. And yet because this violates some sort of foreign policy law about never saying when you will or won't use nukes, this is irresponsible (never mind that the deterrant effect Yepsen is referring to is completely lost on terrorists, who would probably invite such an attack on themselves for the devastating consequences it would have on us.)

Yepsen's claim that Obama now has to run around assuring people he really knows what he's talking about is a bunch of baloney. I'm willing to bet that about 10-20% of Americans think that we'd be justified in carrying out such an attack, and that a substantial majority are so completely opposed to something that would essentially be a war crime that Obama coming out and saying he wouldn't do it is reassuring to them. At least it is to me.

Unfortunately the other leading contender in the race, Hillary Clinton, seems to have bought into Yepsen's bogus reasoning. Here's her response to Obama's comments:

By the afternoon, Clinton (N.Y.) had responded with an implicit rebuke. "Presidents should be careful at all times in discussing the use and nonuse of nuclear weapons," she said, adding that she would not answer hypothetical questions about the use of nuclear force.

"Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrents to keep the peace, and I don't believe any president should make blanket statements with the regard to use or nonuse," Clinton said.

Clinton has either bought into the deterrent rationale or she doesn't wish to invite criticism for appearing not to buying into the deterrent rationale. Either way her comments are flat irresponsible. The use of nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan would be a stupid and possibly criminal act on our part. It's that simple. Either she doesn't know that, or she's afraid to say it, and either reason gives me pause to question her judgment.

Despite Yepsen's claim that this fracas hurts Obama, I think it's pretty clear: Obama demonstrated a willingness to make a fairly flat and non-conventional statement on the use of nukes. That the media pundits think this hurts him is indicative more of their thinking than that of the American people.

And as an aside, for me the jury is still out on which of the leading contenders I support for the nomination. But this sort of thing makes clear to me that Obama is a step ahead of Clinton in his willingness to challenge the pundits. And despite his vague claim that he would use force to target terrorists in Pakistan, he's apparently considerably more restrained in that department than Clinton.

1 comment:

adam said...

As John Dickerson said over at Slate, at least Obama is willing to answer these type of hypotheticals that other "experienced" candidates would. Maybe that makes him unpopular with pundits, but it gives people a peek into what people really need to know - how they think about these things. So far, I like what I see.