IN MAY 1998, President Bill Clinton announced that his policy would be "to capture terrorists, no matter where they hide." After al-Qaeda attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, there was widespread agreement that neither Mr. Clinton nor President Bush had pursued that policy with sufficient dedication. The Sept. 11 commission recommended that, for every actual or potential terrorist sanctuary, the United States "should have a realistic strategy to keep possible terrorists insecure and on the run, using all elements of national power" (italics added). So why is everyone from Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton to Republican Mitt Romney beating up on Barack Obama for endorsing that common-sense position?
In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center last week, delivered after a National Intelligence Estimate reported that al-Qaeda had reconstituted menacingly in the mountainous Waziristan region of Pakistan, Mr. Obama said that he would condition military aid to Pakistan on its willingness to go after foreign fighters and the Taliban. He continued: "I understand that President [Pervez] Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
For this, Mr. Obama was ridiculed by Mr. Romney during a Republican presidential candidates debate Sunday on ABC's "This Week" as a "Dr. Strangelove" who is "going to bomb our allies." At a Democratic debate Tuesday, sponsored by the AFL-CIO and MSNBC, Christopher J. Dodd called Mr. Obama "highly irresponsible" for saying that "we may be willing unilaterally to invade a nation here that we are trying to get to be more cooperative with us in Afghanistan and elsewhere." And Ms. Clinton chimed in: "I do not believe people running for president should engage in hypotheticals. . . . I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that, and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamist extremists who are in bed with al-Qaeda and Taliban."
Mr. Obama recently has taken a number of foreign policy positions with which we disagree, but on this it strikes us that he has the better of the argument -- both on substance and on the importance of debate. Faced with such "actionable intelligence," of course any president will weigh risks against potential benefits, and it's impossible to predict that calculus. The costs of action -- in civilian lives, reputation or an ally's stability -- may be too great. It's crucial, as the Sept. 11 commission went on to say, to "reach out, listen to, and work with other countries that can help." But the principle that the United States will defend itself by going after terrorist enemies in foreign countries, even without those nations' permission if necessary, is, as Joseph R. Biden Jr. pointed out later in the Democratic debate, already U.S. policy. Does Mr. Romney really want to equate such self-defense with "unilateral attack" on an allied nation and repudiate it as U.S. policy?
Ms. Clinton's advocacy of greater discretion may make sense for a president -- but not for a presidential candidate. These are the issues candidates should be debating: Is the United States in a generational conflict with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists? Is the appropriate response primarily military or law enforcement? What's permissible, or wise, in the realm of capture, rendition and detention of terrorism suspects? And, if Mr. Obama is wrong, what would they do about the terrorist training camps in Waziristan? We'd like to hear their answers to that not-so-hypothetical question.
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