Obama vs. Clinton Revisited

OBAMA vs. CLINTON REVISITED….Mark Kleiman thinks there’s more to the Hillary-Obama foreign policy contretemps than I’m giving it credit for. I’m not so sure, but it will take a little bit of in-the-weeds explaining to say why. Here goes.

First, on the question of striking al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, Mark says:

Obama is rejecting the “our sunuvabitch” strategy of making nice to Musharraf (and, I think, the House of Saud as well). HRC says that’s “naive” and “irresponsible.” The MSM agreed, until the polling showed that Obama had the country with him.

I think there’s a huge amount of projection going on here. Obama just flatly didn’t say anything like this at all. The only thing he said was that “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” That’s it. Nothing serious about reducing our support for Musharraf and certainly nothing about reducing our support for the House of Saud. That would be a massive change in U.S. foreign policy, and there’s just no way that Obama intended to telegraph something that big with that one oblique sentence.

As for Hillary Clinton’s response….well, there wasn’t one. (The “naive” and “irresponsible” comment was from last week’s spat over negotiating with foreign dictators.) Obama later made clear that he was talking about “highly targeted” strikes and apparently Clinton doesn’t have a problem with that. There’s just not much daylight between the two here.

Now onto the next subject: nukes. The analytical problem here is quite different: namely that AP screwed up this story pretty badly. Here’s the first version of the AP dispatch that crossed the wire on Thursday (via Nexis, no link):

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday he would not use nuclear weapons “in any circumstance.”

“I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance,” Obama said, with a pause, “involving civilians.” Then he quickly added, “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.”

An hour later AP had changed the lede to add “to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan” to the end of the first sentence, but the damage had already been done. If you saw the first version of the story and didn’t read the whole thing carefully, there’s a good chance you thought Obama was forswearing American use of nuclear weapons very broadly. Even the second version is only a little clearer, which makes Clinton’s criticism (“I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or nonuse of nuclear weapons”) seem pretty reasonable. The AP story, especially the first version, implied something much wider than a simple declaration that Obama didn’t plan to lob nukes into caves in the Hindu Kush.

For the record, on Friday AP finally released a transcript of the conversation:

AP: Sir, with regard to terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan …

OBAMA: Yeah.

AP: Is there any circumstances where you’d be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?

OBAMA: No, I’m not, uh, there has been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that’s not a hypothetical that I’m going to discuss.

AP: Not even tactical?

OBAMA: No. I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance. Uh, if involving you know, civilians… Let me scratch all that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table so…

Frankly, even now it’s not entirely clear what Obama meant, and his “scratch all that” comment suggests that even he thinks discretion is the better part of valor where nukes are concerned. In the end, it was an offhand response to an unexpected question, he didn’t handle it very well, his opponents took the chance to toss a few barbs at him, and that’s about it. There aren’t too many larger lessons here except that AP ought to be more careful about how they report stuff like this.

For now, I’m sticking with my original impression: there’s way more heat than light here. In substantive terms, both Obama and Clinton agree that we should be willing to negotiate with bad actors (this was last week’s argument); both support the use of targeted strikes against high-value al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan; and both seem to agree that although we aren’t going to use nukes to take out those leaders, it’s probably best not to say anything definitive one way or another where nuclear weapons are concerned.

Now, there’s no question that Obama and Clinton are taking different tones on these questions. But I’m getting increasingly irritable that we’re allowing them to get away with this. A different tone may be nice, but we aren’t mind readers, and if either one of them has a serious difference of opinion with the other, they should be able to do more than tease us about it. I’m not willing to let Obama get away forever with nice speechifying that sounds fresh but doesn’t really step away from liberal conventional wisdom much at all, and I’m not willing to let Clinton get away forever with tossing barbs at Obama without herself explaining if she has any substantive differences with him. Tone matters — and in foreign affairs it sometimes matters a lot — but analyzing these recent squabbles is like trying to decipher Kremlin May Day photographs. Enough’s enough.