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Strategic silence

Obama and Clinton announce they'd violate Pakistani sovereignty to get Al Qaeda. More subtlety, please.

August 07, 2007

Say what you like about George W. Bush's poor stewardship of U.S. foreign policy -- and we have -- the president got it exactly right Monday. After a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bush was asked whether he would wait for permission from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to send U.S. forces into Pakistan if he had actionable intelligence about the whereabouts of top Al Qaeda leaders, although waiting might mean missing an opportunity to strike at them.

Bush artfully dodged the question. And although this page is not in the habit of praising evasions by public officials, in the case of Pakistan, smart foreign policy required what is known in diplomacy as "strategic ambiguity" -- in other words, a deliberate refusal to be pinned down.

Let us here speak the undiplomatic truths that must never pass an American president's lips unless he or she has made a decision to sever the distressed but still highly strategic alliance with Pakistan -- not just with Musharraf, but with the generalissimo's successors:

First, sovereignty in a country as troubled as Pakistan is something of a fig leaf, and violations of the territory of weak U.S. allies in the post-9/11 era have increasingly become a matter of "don't ask, don't tell." It is widely believed that U.S. Special Forces and CIA operatives have been plying their arts inside Pakistani borders, with the understanding that they will do their best not to embarrass Musharraf by being too obvious or killing too many civilians, and that Pakistani authorities will do their best to ignore their presence.

Second, the best way to empower radical Islamists in Pakistan is to offer proof of their views that Musharraf is a U.S. puppet and that the United States is a fair-weather friend with no respect for the Pakistani nation. Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton did our national interest a disservice last week when, to score political "tougher than thou" points, they recklessly vowed to violate Pakistani sovereignty and international law. Pakistanis of many stripes were outraged.

Third, of course any sensible U.S. president should worry about delays or leaks by the Pakistani authorities that would let Al Qaeda leaders get away yet again, and might strike first and ask permission later. That's what Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. said he'd do. He's right, but we wish he hadn't said so. May we have presidential candidates, please?

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