Obama stakes turf, outlines counterterrorism plan
Would add troops in Afghanistan, double foreign aid
WASHINGTON -- The United States must add at least 7,000 troops in Afghanistan, double foreign aid spending to $50 billion, and be prepared to strike unilaterally against terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said yesterday in a major speech laying out his counterterrorism plan.
The thrust of Obama's 35-minute address on national security was that America is less safe today than it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He argued that the "misguided" war in Iraq and the sacrifice of American values in military detentions have sparked fresh anti-Americanism and diverted attention from the crucial task of bringing Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his followers to justice.
"When I am president, we will wage the war that has to be won," Obama said to a roomful of journalists and scholars at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Obama delivered his speech, in which he outlined a robust foreign policy with several military and diplomatic components, amid a fierce debate with presidential rival Hillary Clinton about when it is appropriate for a US president to meet with leaders of rogue nations such as Syria and Iran. Obama continued to sharpen their differences yesterday by obliquely equating the New York senator's reticence to meet with such leaders with the policies of President Bush, which he said has failed.
"It's time to turn the page on Washington's conventional wisdom that agreement must be reached before you meet, that talking to other countries is some kind of reward, and that presidents can only meet with people who will tell them what they want to hear," Obama said.
Political analysts interpreted Obama's speech as a pointed message to his presidential competitors: that he will not accept being portrayed as weak or inexperienced on terrorism and world affairs. Within hours of his remarks, however, the campaign of one of those competitors, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, dubbed Obama a "Johnny-come-lately" and said Obama had contributed little in recent months while Biden has worked toward many of the same goals.
Much of Obama's speech was devoted to how the United States should use nonmilitary means to rebuild relationships around the world. He vowed to attend a "major Islamic forum" in his first 100 days in office. He called for a new $2 billion global education fund to combat the influence of radical Islamic schools. And he said he would launch a public diplomacy initiative consisting of "America Houses" across the Islamic world with the "Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America's Muslims and the strength they add to our country, and vocational programs."
But though Obama proposed billions in new spending, he did not detail yesterday how he would pay for it. Aides said that drawing down the US military presence in Iraq would free up billions.
One striking element of the speech was Obama's tough rhetoric on Pakistan, which he said must do more to root out terrorists hiding in its remote regions or lose American aid. And he said that if Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, was unwilling to go after high-level terrorist targets despite "actionable intelligence," the United States would act on its own.
"I understand President Musharraf has his own challenges," Obama said. "But . . . there are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again."
Husain Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University and a former adviser to several Pakistani prime ministers, said Obama was right to address forthrightly Pakistan's role in battling terrorism. But, he said, the United States had to be absolutely sure of its target or a unilateral military strike could backfire.
"It sounds very good to say we're going to go in and strike, but who are you striking and what are you striking?" Haqqani said. "All you're going to do is turn people against the US."
Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who is also running for the Democratic nomination and trying to get traction, was unusually critical of Obama's remarks on Pakistan, saying it was "dangerous and irresponsible to leave even the impression the United States would needlessly and publicly provoke a nuclear power."
Obama was introduced by Lee Hamilton, a former US representative from Indiana who helped lead the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group. Hamilton has not endorsed a candidate, but he gave Obama's speech high marks afterward, calling it "very well done."
"I'm very impressed with the number of quite constructive proposals he had in the speech," Hamilton said, highlighting Obama's strong warning to Pakistan. "It seems to me if we've learned anything at all about fighting terrorism, we have learned that we cannot permit Al Qaeda to have sanctuaries, and those sanctuaries must go."
In another veiled jab yesterday at Clinton, Obama stepped up his criticism of Congress's 2002 vote authorizing Bush to invade Iraq. "Congress rubber-stamped the rush to war," he said, also dubbing Congress "coauthor of a catastrophic war."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.