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Sunday, March 16, 2008
Is Obama another JFK, Bush, or both?
By TOM PLATE
LOS ANGELES — Admirers of Barack Obama who glibly and favorably compare the Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency to John F. Kennedy always assume that they are doing the former a favor. But there's another way to look at it — and it's less pretty.
Consider the spring of 1961. JFK had been in the White House for only a few months when suddenly the Joint Chiefs of Staff dropped a major decision on his office desk: whether to give a green light to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, originally ginned up during the Eisenhower administration and designed to topple the then-young communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro.
As a former junior senator from Massachusetts — only 44 years old — JFK was of course eager to prove his chops in a world still divided by communism. So the president (then the youngest in American history) made the wrong decision and gave a "go" sign to what became the well-known Bay of Pigs mess — the darkest hour for the otherwise legendary Kennedy.
Flash-forward now to early next year and imagine that the new president of the United States is in fact the former junior senator from Illinois. Although, at 47, he would be slightly older than JFK was, as a first-term junior senator he would have had less big-time Washington experience than JFK in his first year.
Imagine that, with just a few months in office and the U.S. economy sinking deeper into recession, a terrorist operation strikes the U.S. The perpetrators are known to hail from one of the tribal areas of Pakistan, but the incumbent government in Islamabad (perhaps, by then, without Bush pal Pervez Musharraf at the helm) will not help or even let American forces go in and try to get the bad guys.
So the Joint Chiefs of Staff put Plan B on Obama's desk in the Oval Office: American forces go on the attack, and too bad for Islamabad, the United Nations and everyone else. What does the new green president decide to do?
His opposition to the Iraq war notwithstanding, Obama has already given us a scary hint. Just as JFK railed on and on about a nonexistent missile gap with the USSR during the campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon, Obama has similarly tried to look and talk tough about terror.
Obama said, if elected in November 2008, he would be willing to attack inside the sovereign territory of Pakistan with or without approval of the Pakistani government, a move that would likely cause major anxieties in the already troubled region and make us even more hated than ever.
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," Obama said, adding that the U.S. must be willing to strike al-Qaida targets inside Pakistan.
Critics of the junior Illinois senator accused him of trying to out-hawk his political opponents, if not the Decider Hawk himself, President George W. Bush: "I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism."
Of course, perhaps terrorism cannot be effectively fought on any classical battlefield, despite the magnificence of U.S. military forces. Things are not going so well in Iraq, and not that great in Afghanistan; so surely military unilateralism by the U.S. in Pakistan would be a comparable folly. The battle for victory may require all the patience and wisdom we possess to spurn the easy, macho, knee-jerk response.
To be sure, heated campaign statements and speeches are not always a good guide to future policy. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1991 offered up a raft of speeches roasting China on the human-rights issue, but his actual administration consistently prioritized engagement — as has his successor. And those polices were absolutely in the national interest.
Obama's campaign rhetoric may be nowhere closer to a real guide to presidential decision-making. In the campaign, the candidate himself repeatedly challenges the North American Free Trade Agreement as if it were one of the worst trade pact turkeys in history (it isn't). Yet privately Obama's economic adviser has whispered to Canadian officials concerned about Obama's NAFTA stand that they should not take as literal truth everything they hear coming out of his campaign.
Perhaps the Pakistan comments need to be similarly understood — more as vote-reaching than policy-clarifying. Let's pray and hope so. The last thing the U.S. needs is another president who believes that unilateral military action, especially against a Muslim state, is the way to enlarge the depth and breadth of the "coalition of the willing."
The rest of the world is going to be no more willing to follow Obama down that disastrous path than it was Bush — despite the difference in charm appeal. If JFK were alive today, he'd surely be happy to explain it to all concerned.
UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Burkle Center for International Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the author of five books and a syndicated columnist. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate