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 a whole other way to look at it ― and it is less pretty.
Consider the spring of 1961. JFK had settled into the White House for only a few months and was still greener than cheap bathtub beer on St. Patrick's Day. Suddenly the Joint Chiefs of Staff dropped a major decision on his Oval Office desk: whether to green-light the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, originally ginned up during Eisenhower's time, that was 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 into competing empires. So the young 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 otherwise legendary Kennedy's darkest hour.
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. It's true that he would be slightly older at 47 than JFK, but as a first-term junior senator, he will have had even less big-time Washington experience on which to draw than JFK his first year.
Imagine that just a few months into office, with 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 even 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, Islamabad, the United Nations and everyone else, too bad.
What does the green new President decide what to do?
Already the junior senator from Illinois ― his opposition to the Iraq war notwithstanding ― has given us a scary hint. Just as JFK railed on and on about a non-existent 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 from 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 United States must be willing to strike al Qaeda 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 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, 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 then his actual administration consistently prioritized engagement ― as has his successor. And those polices were absolutely in the national interest.
Obama campaign rhetoric may be nowhere closer to a real guide to presidential decision-making. In the campaign, the candidate himself repeatedly grills 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 advisor is whispering into the ears of Canadian officials concerned about Obama's NAFTA stand not to take as literal truth everything they hear coming out of his campaign.
Perhaps the Pakistan comments need to be similarly understood ― that is, more as vote-reaching than policy-clarifying. Let's pray and hope so. The last thing the United States 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 differential in charm appeal. If JFK were alive today, he'd surely be happy to explain it to all concerned.
UCLA Prof. 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 is a syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.