“You don’t say that out loud”


Last night I called John McCain’s remarks on Pakistan breathtaking. Our text begins at 7:51 of the video excerpt below. Obama has been discussing his comments, earlier in the campaign, to the effect that if the U.S. became aware of Osama bin Laden or other “high-value targets” seeking refuge in the mountainous border region of Pakistan near Afghanistan, that the U.S. should strike at those targets. McCain, who has been highly critical of this policy, replies.


“Now, on this issue of aiding Pakistan. ‘If you’re gonna aim a gun at somebody,’ George Shultz, our great Secretary of State, told me once, ‘you’d better be prepared to pull the trigger.’ I’m not prepared at this time to cut off aid to Pakistan. So I’m not prepared to threaten, as Senator Obama apparently wants to do, as he has said, that he would announce military strikes into Pakistan. We’ve got to get the support of the people of Pakistan. He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things. And you work with the  Pakistani government. Now the new president of Pakistan, Kadari, has got his hands full. And this area on the border has not been governed since the days of Al Qaeda…”

The trivial problem with this is that the new president of Pakistan is named Zardari, not Kadari. I had to look that up, and it would be a fine answer indeed that had only that problem with it.

The more preoccupying problem is that McCain is announcing, I believe unwittingly, that (at least as of Friday night; these things seem to change) he has no substantive difference with Obama on the matter. “If you have to do things, you have to do things” — an excellent short form for McCain’s entire foreign policy, come to think of it. His only concern is that Obama would tell the world what he was doing — is telling the world, already, what he would do — whereas McCain finds such candour distasteful. “You don’t say that out loud.”

The most preoccupying problem is that the current U.S. government has been launching military strikes within Pakistan all summer. There is no evidence that McCain even knows this has been happening, although one must presume he does because it’s in all the newspapers. And it is dispiriting that Obama failed, or declined, to call him on it.

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“You don’t say that out loud”

  1. Bet what he really means is “if you have to do things” you do them covertly.

    That would necessarily alter your conclusion somewhat.

    It would also fit with several decades of actual American practice, regardless of who holds the White House. And McCain would probably know about more than a few of these.

  2. Clearly they’re doing a heck of a job of keeping them covert.

  3. If the Obama announces he is hitting Pakistan it’s pretty hard to deny it. In a world where saving political face is as important as actions, making a statement like that kinda puts deniability down the drain and backs Pakistan into the proverbial corner. It shows a naive and dangerous world view on the part of Obama.

  4. Anyone have any idea where the Atomic Clock is? I suspect with the appearance of Sarah Palin and the constantly reborn Wild Man McCain (a comedy writer’s dream team – “ThankyouGod! ThankyouGod! ThankyouGod!) it’s got to be half past midnight by now. I mean I don’t think we need sweat the carbon tax.

  5. If the US are already striking within Pakistan, then why aren’t the American papers covering it?

    At any rate, it’s about bloody time the US does something with Pakistan instead of pretending it is such a great ally. I found the Times Magazine a few weeks ago fascinating in its account of the two sided game that Pakistan is playing, pretending to support the war against terror and then letting the Taliban over whenever they want.

  6. Maybe Obama didn’t point out this fact for fear of being seen to be in agreement with the Bush administration.

  7. Why aren’t the American papers covering a lot of things?
    The Pakistanis have no more control over this area than anyone else does. The few times they’ve tried to assert some control they’ve had their asses handed to them.
    The Brits (Durand) laid down arbitrary borders all over Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And they mean very little to the people who actually live there. Their loyalties are to traditional clan and tribal connections. The only thing that ties them together is resentment and distrust of outsiders. And they’ve successfully resisted any foreign presence for centuries.
    Obama, typically, thinks American firepower can change that.
    But really, does anyone seriously think that Osama is still alive? The man was reportedly in kidney failure and on dialysus while hunkered down in Tora Bora. If he was alive then.

  8. The American papers are covering that American forces are suspending ground raids into Pakistan…And I’m pretty sure the Associated Press (linked to by Wells) counts as American media…


    Obama’s challenge in the debate wasn’t to find grounds to refute McCain’s charges – it was choosing which grounds to use when. He several times called McCain on holding on to policies that Bush had recently abandoned, and he even noted that McCain’d advisor Kissinger was closer to Obama’s position than McCain’s on “meeting without preconditions”. So Obama didn’t repeat that point here. He went with the fact that McCain was distorting Obama’s position and had no credibility as the voice of reasoned and restrained rhetoric (“coming from the guy who was singing bomb Iran a short while ago, I’m not sure how credible this is”).

    On your other point, asserting that military action should be covert is a substantive policy position. And probably the wrong one in this region. Do you really want the papers to reveal to the Pakistani people that America has secretly been bombing inside their country? With the covert permission of the Pakistani government? That could really screw things up quite badly…

  9. But the most successful foreign policies in the world are all about deliberate ambiguity. Political success in the region has to do with standing for photos with the president of Pakistan while bombing the hell out of the tribal areas. A policy of honesty and clarity would lead to disaster for either American policy towards Afghanistan or American policy towards Pakistan. I’m no great fan of McCain’s, but Obama is the one being naive here.

  10. Strategic ambiguity is not the same as covert action. I’m sticking with Daniel Davies on this: a good idea doesn’t need a lot of lies or cover-ups. If you can’t explain publicly why it might be necessary for the American military to cross into Pakistan, you probably shouldn’t do it. Obama has explained. And you shouldn’t assume nobody’s ever going to figure out American planes are bombing the tribal areas with the support of the Pakistan government. If you haven’t made your case publicly, the Pakistan president will be toast – and the American military will have an even harder time from that point forward. It’s naive to assume that you can maintain public support while lying to the public. Proof of covert bombing would reduce American support for the war and antagonize the Pakistan public. And it’s naive to think you can continue a war and defeat Al-Quaeda and the Taliban without public support.

  11. Obama cannot call him on it because:

    with FISA and some backtracking on Iraq, his position on Pakistan fleshes out a narrative that argues: on foreign policy, I, the candidate-icon for the anti-W crowd, adopt, accept and will pursue the Bush foreign policy.

    With Pakistan, Obama criticizes our Musharaf-heavy approach and how we ignored the plight of democracy in that country for too long. That is basically point 1 of the Bush foreign policy.

    Then, he has said, he would use preemptive force against a sovereign target without seeking permission. He raises the bar on the level of threat, as does Sarah Palin, from gathering to imminent. Okay. Small nuace. Basically, though, its Bush foreing policy point 2.

    Does he accept point 3: no distinction between terorist groups and state sponsors of terrorist groups? We should seek clarity on this for everybody’s sake. My bet is that he agrees with point 3 of the Bush doctrine too – no distinction.

    So, no real daylight between Obama and W on foreign policy. Not something to advertise until he runs for re-election.

  12. Note that Obama’s position was about killing bin Laden or Zawahiri, not the current US policy about pursuit of ordinary ol’ Taliban back into the Tribal Areas. One may say that both involve violating Pakistani sovereignty, but the Bush approach is to do that routinely; Obama was talking about “high value” strikes.

    “no real daylight between Obama and W on foreign policy. Not something to advertise until he runs for re-election.”

    Obama was one of the very few people to condemn the US invasion of Iraq. There is actually something in the way of daylight between massively invading another country – on faked intel – and going after a few sworn enemies of your country. You gotta be pretty absolutist to condemn a US air raid on Zawahiri, assuming they could ever find him.

  13. I have always been rather unimpressed with the claims of Pakistan to “sovereignty” over the tribal areas. Where is the proverbial beef. In essence, Pakistan ceded sovereignty a couple of years ago when it did a deal with the Taliban supporting folks in the tribal areas.

    Once the effective policing of those areas left the Pakistani government, in my view, the Tribal Areas became a free fire zone.

  14. Jay Currie, I couldn’t agree more that Pakistan has no control over the Tribal Areas, except the kind of control you get over the Mob by paying your protection money on time. But sovereignty is rather in the eye of the beholder (and the UN), so that the people of Pakistan deeply resent these US raids. As Pakistan has a huge army, not to mention nukes, treating their territory as an extension of Afghanistan is not a wise policy.

  15. I found it very discouraging that Obama failed to call McCain on a number of his positions. Obama has to get in their and mix it up with Gramps in the next debate and not let McCain appear to be lecturing him on major policy issues.

  16. Afghanistan has never recognized the border – legally. In practice they have to, even though they can not exercise any control over it.
    If Obama is serious about sending troops into the tribal areas on any basis other than the quick – strike- and withdraw that is currently happening, then, wow , that’s the Mother of all Quagmires.

    It’s possible that the Pakistanis would weep and wail about it but secretly welcome the prospect.
    Except for jihadi faction in the intelligence service. Let’s hope none of it happens and all those Canadian kids get their asses out of there safely

  17. Invasion of Iraq?

    If Barack Obama were in the Senate tn, he’d have voted for it. Anyone seriously believe otherwise?

  18. Well, chuckercanuck, all the more reason to be glad he wasn’t in the Senate.

  19. There’s no credible reason to expect Obama would have voted for the war if he had been in the Senate. The sitting Democratic Senator from Illinois (Dick Durbin) argued strongly against it (after being one of the few to read the intelligence reports) and was one of 23 U.S. Senators to vote against the joint Congressional resolution authorizing the War. Why would Obama have voted against his senior Senate partner, and in contradiction to his well-known opposition at the time?

  20. Probably the only worse thing to admit than you would send troops into a sovereign country is to announce that you would do so covertly. Because if you say you’re willing to do something but that you would keep it a secret, who is to say you haven’t already done it?

  21. Mike T. makes an excellent point. Obama’s saying “I’d chase bin Laden into Pakistan”. McCain’s saying “I’d chase Obama into Pakistan to, but I’m gonna keep it secret”. Perhaps it’s correct that Obama shouldn’t state the obvious (though I think it would be ridiculous to somehow “keep quiet” that you’d chase bin Laden into Pakistan… I mean, d’uh). However, McCain’s argument makes no sense. He’s announcing, on national television, that he WOULD attack in Pakistan, but he’s only going to do so “in secret”. Get that? He’s telling the world that this is the kind of military engagement America will absolutely engage in, but that they’ll keep quiet. Don’t you need to keep THAT quiet too?

    Also, didn’t McCain say, out loud, that he’d chase Osama bin Laden to the very Gates of Hell?

    But he thinks the average Pakistani, or any thinking person, would think that while he’ll chase him even into Hell he won’t chase him into Pakistan? He’s more than willing to say aloud that he’ll take on Satan and hellfire and the armies of darkness, yet he’s worried about possibly upsetting the Pakistanis???

    All that said, I’m glad McCain said explicitly that “if you have to do things, you have to do things”. Until then, it had seemed to me that McCain’s position on fighting bin Laden was “I’ll chase him to the Gates of Hell, but if he goes into Pakistan he’s off limits”.

  22. I thought SNL did a good job of covering this foreign policy issue in their debate skit in which “McCain” suggests that he and “Obama” both suspend their campaigns for the good of the country and get dropped into northern Pakistan to persaonally hunt for Osama bin Laden.

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