By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew another distinction between herself and Sen. Barack Obama yesterday, refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Osama bin Laden or other terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Clinton's comments came in response to Obama's remarks earlier in the day that nuclear weapons are "not on the table" in dealing with ungoverned territories in the two countries, and they continued a steady tug of war among the Democratic presidential candidates over foreign policy.
"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance" in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Obama said. He then added that he would not use such weapons in situations "involving civilians."
"Let me scratch that," he said. "There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."
Obama (Ill.) was responding to a question by the Associated Press about whether there was any circumstance in which he would be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat terrorism and bin Laden.
"There's been no discussion of using nuclear weapons, and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss," Obama said. When asked whether his answer also applied to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, he said it did.
By the afternoon, Clinton (N.Y.) had responded with an implicit rebuke. "Presidents should be careful at all times in discussing the use and nonuse of nuclear weapons," she said, adding that she would not answer hypothetical questions about the use of nuclear force.
"Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrents to keep the peace, and I don't believe any president should make blanket statements with the regard to use or nonuse," Clinton said.
At a debate last week in South Carolina, Clinton directly criticized Obama for saying he would meet with leaders traditionally hostile to the United States. Obama responded, and the sniping went on most of the week.
But when Obama said in a speech Wednesday that he would use military force to go after terrorists in Pakistan, even without President Pervez Musharraf's permission, Clinton did not join in the criticism of Obama by other Democrats.
That criticism only intensified yesterday.
"Over the past several days, Senator Obama's assertions about foreign and military affairs have been, frankly, confusing and confused," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Del.) said in a statement. "He has made threats he should not make and made unwise categorical statements about military options."
Yet for Obama, who opposed the Iraq invasion, the episode offered an opportunity for him to present his approach as entirely different from those of his colleagues. In a letter to supporters titled "The war we need to win," he called for the country to "stop fighting the wrong war" and to focus on the al-Qaeda threat, which he said became a lower priority after the Iraq war began.
U.S. officials rarely rule out nuclear attacks as a matter of diplomacy, preferring to keep the threat as a deterrent. Yet several foreign policy experts said Obama was essentially right: It would be unwise to target an individual or a small group with nuclear weapons that could kill civilians and worsen the United States' image around the world.
Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution scholar, said Obama "clearly gave the right answer."
"He's certainly right to say you would never use a nuclear weapon to get Osama bin Laden," he said. He said that if intelligence officials were able to locate bin Laden with the precision required for a nuclear attack, they would also be able to catch or kill him by more conventional means that would not signal to the world that using nuclear force is acceptable.
The Obama campaign was still responding to the uproar late in the afternoon. "If we had actionable intelligence about the existence of high-level al-Qaeda targets like Osama bin Laden, Senator Obama would act and is confident that conventional means would be sufficient to take the target down," said Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman. "Frankly we're surprised that others would disagree."