Shadow Government

Does the Bin Laden raid tell us who is a bolder commander in chief?

The election may hinge on economic and domestic policy, but this past week the campaign was all about national security, specifically the president's role as commander in chief.

The prompt was the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden, which encouraged the Obama campaign to put out an extraordinary campaign advertisement praising the president for showing the courage to order the strike and suggesting that Romney would not have done so.

The critique of Romney was fundamentally dishonest in the way that campaign ads often are. The ad cherry-picked Romney quotes and deployed them out of context. The valid Romney observation that defeating al Qaeda would require a comprehensive strategy, not one limited to hunting down a single man, got distorted by the Obama scriptwriters into a hesitation to pursue Bin Laden. And the valid Romney observation that it was a mistake to boast in advance about conducting unilateral strikes against the territory of our Pakistani partner got distorted into an unwillingness to act in America's national interest.

Nevertheless, while the Obama campaign misrepresented Romney's position on the hunt for Bin Laden, the advertisement was (perhaps inadvertently) plausible in claiming not every president would have ordered the Abbottabad raid -- and, in this respect, it was odd to hear former President Clinton making this argument.

Others have commented on how unseemly it was for the former president to participate in a dishonest attack like this. Both former Presidents Bush have been scrupulous (thus far) about hewing to an elder-statesman, above-the-partisan-fray sort of role. It is unfortunate that former Presidents Carter and Clinton, for all the other good they have done after leaving office, have not been so scrupulous.

Still, the interesting thing about President Clinton's commentary was not how partisan but how ironic it was. Because of the last eight men who were the runners-up or winners of the office of president, the one least likely to have ordered the Abbottabad raid was President Clinton. Clinton was famously casualty phobic and uber-cautious in the use of force, for understandable reasons (as I have outlined at length elsewhere, including here and here.

And the Abbottabad raid required a commander in chief willing to take a risky bet. Consider the factors that might daunt an irresolute decider:

  • Only circumstantial evidence that Bin Laden actually was in the compound -- evidence that was weaker than the evidence that suggested Iraq had reconstituted its WMD programs, according to a stunning report by Peter Bergen.
  • His vice-president recommending against it.
  • His secretary of Defense recommending an airstrike rather than a raid with special forces.
  • A collapsing partnership with Pakistan that would suffer a setback if the raid went perfectly according to plan, but much, much worse if anything went wrong.

Under those circumstances, President George W. Bush probably still would have ordered the attack, as did President Obama. But is anyone confident that President Clinton would have?

The decision President Obama faced was a hard one and he took a gamble that paid off. He deserves credit for it -- credit that Americans of both parties have been reliably paying him. However, let's be honest that it is a decision that compares favorably not with Republicans but with other Democrats.

Getty Images

Shadow Government

How to save the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

Islamabad is unhappy with the United States. As the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden approaches, Pakistani officials, and especially parliamentarians, are spewing even more venom against the United States than they usually do -- which is saying a lot.  Pakistan is full of grievances. It is furious that the United States is launching drone attacks against al Qaeda terrorists on its territory. Pakistan has not yet reopened the logistics support line to Afghanistan through its territory, which it closed in retaliation against the previous spate of American drone attacks. The future of that line now appears to be in real jeopardy.

Pakistan wants $3 billion from the Coalition Support Fund as compensation for its operations in support of the American effort against terrorists operating from the Tribal Areas. Washington is prepared to reimburse about a third of that amount, and is not yet ready to pay even that.

Finally, Islamabad is uneasy with the Afghan-American agreement that commits Washington to a decade of support for Afghanistan once American and coalition troops withdraw in 2014. No one really knows how much American assistance will really be available. Ten years is a very long time, and American interests could lie elsewhere. But Pakistanis, ever seeking to render Afghanistan firmly within their sphere of influence -- and to prevent it from becoming part of India's sphere -- are uneasy about the thought of close American ties to Kabul for the foreseeable future.

There are those in Washington who persist in calling Pakistan an American ally. It is no such thing. The American-Pakistani relationship is a forced marriage of inconvenience. American-Pakistani relations are a shadow of the cooperation that had reached its zenith when Pervez Mussharraf committed himself to the fight against al Qaeda. Early in the past decade, Pakistan redirected its forces from the Indian border, and undertook serious operations against al Qaeda. Pakistan lost many troops in the effort, and the United States, recognizing Islamabad's contribution, established the Coalition Support Fund, which, at least when I was in charge of payments, covered over 80 percent of all Pakistani claims.

But times have changed. Pakistan's military has become increasingly radicalized, even as the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal continues to grow apace. The country's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has struggled with the military virtually since the day he took office.  The Pakistani "street," whose history of hostility to the United States dates back at least to the 1979 burning of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, is even more violently anti-American today. The power and influence of the Imams, and of the students who graduate their madrasas, continues to grow unabated. And the possibility that the country will break apart, with Pashtu, Baluch, Sindhis, and Punjabis, each going their own way, is considered more real than ever before.

The United States cannot abandon Pakistan. To do so is to invite open Pakistani support for the likes of the Haqqanis, who probably are now America's most dangerous adversaries in Afghanistan. However bad the relationship with Pakistan's military might be, having no relationship would be even worse. After all, not all of Pakistan's generals are radical Muslims; many still retain a Western-oriented outlook.

Moreover, the only way to combat the influence of radical Islam in Pakistan is to fund schools that can compete with the madrasas, by offering both religious and secular studies, as well as the hot meals that impoverished students can obtain nowhere else. While reeling economically, only the United States, despite its own economic headaches, is still in a position to finance directly the creation and sustenance of such an educational system.

Finally, however uncomfortable the relationship with Pakistan may be today, a Pakistan that becomes even more radicalized, or worse still, breaks apart, will represent a true danger to American security. Washington is right to ignore Pakistani protests and once again to employ drones against those who seek to harm America. It is also right to withhold payments of Coalition Support Funding until the road to Afghanistan is once again re-opened. But America must do more, in other ways, particularly in developing a much more ambitious plan to support modern education in Pakistan's poorest areas -that would also encompass traditional Koranic  studies. Perhaps direct American assistance will not be feasible -- Islamabad may prohibit such aid. In that case, indirect means will have to be found -- perhaps via international organizations. If the United States truly hopes for a cooperative relationship with Pakistan, it must do all it can to shed the light of modern education on the darker corners of that country's psyche. Nothing less will do, and no action at all would constitute a tragedy, for Pakistan, for the entire region, and for the United States as well.     

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images