During the last debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, (transcript), I was listening for one issue above all others: Pakistan. The moderator did ask one question concerning Pakistan, which Romney answered at length. This is his most pertinent statement:
But Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads, and they’re rushing to build a lot more. They’ll have more than Great Britain sometime in the – in the relatively near future. They also have the Haqqani network and – and the Taliban existent within their country. And so a – a Pakistan that falls apart, becomes a failed state would be of extraordinary danger to Afghanistan and us. And so we’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a – a more stable government and – and rebuild a relationship with us. And that means that – that – that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met.
The moderator then turned to the president, who tap-danced around the question and avoided answering it at all. The moderator asked a second question about Pakistan, and again the president avoided giving an answer. In both instances, President Obama spoke in generalities but gave very little detail. Those who have watched the debates, and Obama’s speeches over the years, know that he is usually not afraid to give details; indeed, his willingness to give the details of his plans (as compared to the reluctance of his opponent to offer them) was one of the main differences I noticed between Obama and McCain in the 2008 presidential race, and the difference is even more pronounced now, given that Romney says (1) he’ll “repeal and replace Obamacare” but never gives details as to what he’ll replace it with; (2) he’ll cut spending to match his much-ballyhooed tax cuts, but says very little about what he’d cut; and (3) he’ll fix the economy by slashing regulations and adding 12M jobs, but (except for massive tax cuts, minimizing regulation, and ending Obamacare), never says exactly how he’d do that.
In other words, Mitt Romney’s track record of revealing details on how he’d accomplish his goals has been sparse at best, whereas President Obama has nearly always been fairly forthcoming with such details. So why the glaring (at least to me) difference in the level of detail concerning America’s policy towards Pakistan? Maybe it’s because Obama understands how one misspoken word from him on this matter could light the fuse that would light Pakistan on fire and put her on a road that can lead only to great tragedy.
First, we need to understand the very real threat that Pakistan poses to world peace; much more so, in fact, than Iran ever did. Pakistan is a Sunni Muslim country that (as Romney pointed out) has 100+ nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, Pakistan also has a relatively weak and wildly unpopular government, and the Pakistani government’s alliance with America has made it all the more unpopular. According to Mother Jones magazine, the Obama administration is well aware of the situation:
At the heart of this acerbic relationship, however, is Pakistan’s arsenal of 110 nuclear bombs which, if the country were to disintegrate, could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, possibly from inside its own security establishment. As Barack Obama confided to his aides, this remains his worst foreign-policy nightmare, despite the decision of the US Army to train a commando unit to retrieve Pakistan’s nukes, should extremists seize some of them or materials to produce a “dirty bomb” themselves.
Pakistan’s military high command fears the Pentagon’s contingency plans to seize its nukes. Following the clandestine strike by US SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011, it loaded elements of its nuclear arsenal onto trucks, which rumbled around the country to frustrate any possible American attempt to grab its most prized possessions. When Senator John Kerry arrived in Islamabad to calm frayed nerves following Bin Laden’s assassination, high Pakistani officials insisted on a written US promise not to raid their nuclear arsenal. He snubbed the demand.
Nuclear weapons. On trucks. In a third-world country. With a wildly unpopular government. And a population that largely hates America and has largely neither heard of nor cares about 9/11 or why we wanted so badly to kill Osama bin Laden and to destroy al-Qaeda. Add to that particularly dangerous mix the drone strikes that the Obama administration has used to decimate the al-Qaeda leadership, but at the cost of many innocent Pakistani dead. These drone strikes are quite popular among most Americans; after all, we’re getting the bad guys without putting our own military at risk, but America’s use of drones that have killed innocent Pakistani men, women, and children in sovereign Pakistani territory has made us all the more hated in the eyes of the people of the nuclear-armed Pakistani nation. The prospect of driving Pakistan into the arms of extremists is something that American politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, want desperately to avoid. As the reference above points out, a senior Pakistan military officer recently stated, “We developed all these nukes to use against India. Now they turn out to be very useful in dealing with the US.”
I’ve stated for some time that the real reason we’re still in Afghanistan is to help stabilize Pakistan. I still maintain that this is the Obama administration’s primary reason for doing so, and Obama’s “worst nightmare” seems to support my contention. That said, the Obama administration’s policy of using drones in Pakistani territory may have the unintended consequence of forcing Pakistan into an alliance with Islamic extremists who would dearly love to get their hands on a transportable nuclear weapon. For all his foreign policy successes, I believe that Obama’s profligate use of drones in Pakistan may prove to be a serious, even a grave, mistake.
One can just imagine what the public reaction would have been had Obama pointed out any of this during the foreign policy debate. Mitt Romney had the opportunity to play to the crowd by saying what he would do. But Romney showed his rank ignorance of the art of diplomacy by stating that any aid to Pakistan would be conditional on their efforts to remake their society as he sees fit.
President Obama has no such luxury to speak on Pakistan at length, for he knows full well how critical it is to prop up the current government in Islamabad. Whatever he may say for public consumption, he knows that the greatest security threat facing America is not Iran or Russia or China, but Pakistan.