Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Is Bush following Obama in Pakistan?

The American military and NATO forces have been engaged in a battle with Taliban and al Qaeda militants along the Afghan-Pakistan border for several years now. A few weeks ago, the Bush administration adopted a policy of pursuing al Qaeda and Taliban militants across the border into Pakistan, with aerial bombings from drones (which have been used all along) and ground forces (which is new).

Early in the presidential primaries, Obama claimed that he would attack al Qaeda on Pakistani territory, without the Pakistani government's permission, "if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets." At the time, Obama was ridiculed as naive about foreign policy. Now, it seems that the Bush administration is following that policy. It also seems that the critics of the policy were party justified, since the recent American incursions have drawn a sharp rebuke from the new Pakistani leadership, and have possibly destabilized Pakistani politics.

I'd like to suggest that Bush isn't exactly following Obama's earlier recommendation. First, Obama was not talking about ground troops, and he was only talking about "high-value targets" (presumably folks like Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri). I might be parsing words too much here, but it's important, because there's a cost-benefit calculation that must be made: Is killing or capturing the militant worth upsetting relations with (and within) Pakistan? As I interpret Obama's statement, it's only worth it when it's a high-value target. Bush's recent policy has dramatically widened that net, and so he might be operating under a different cost-beneft calculation.

Indeed, Scott Horton has argued that Bush's calculation in this case is entirely different. He thinks Bush's attempt to capture or kill Bin Laden is related to the U.S. electoral cycle:
"The Bush Administration is hoping for an 'October surprise' that will lift the tides of the Republican candidates just in time for Election Day. That explains why the extraordinary effort is undertaken now, and why the sensitivities of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship are being ignored."

That's a pretty brutal claim. I'm not sure what to make of it. But after the past seven years of manipulating foreign policy for partisan political purposes, I'm not eager to give Bush the benefit of the doubt on this one.

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