On Pakistan, at least, Senator John McCain appears slightly to the left of Barack Obama. Just as it was during the 2008 presidential campaign. Yesterday, during his appearance at the Heritage Foundation to speak about the war in Afghanistan, I asked McCain about threats emanating from the Obama administration to bombard Quetta in pursuit of the Taliban’s leadership.

The question has echoes of 2008. Back then, in the second presidential campaign debate, you’ll remember, Obama declared forthrightly that he would be prepared, if elected president, to pursue the bad guys across the border into Pakistan, regardless of that little thing called Pakistani sovereignty — and McCain was opposed. (He called Obama’s idea “remarkable,” shaking his head, then.) Here’s the relevant transcript:

QUESTION Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?

OBAMA I do believe that we have to change our policies with Pakistan. We can’t coddle, as we did, a dictator, give him billions of dollars and then he’s making peace treaties with the Taliban and militants.

What I’ve said is we’re going to encourage democracy in Pakistan, expand our nonmilitary aid to Pakistan so that they have more of a stake in working with us, but insisting that they go after these militants.

And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.


MCCAIN You know, my hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt used to say walk softly — talk softly, but carry a big stick. Sen. Obama likes to talk loudly.

In fact, he said he wants to announce that he’s going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable.

You know, if you are a country and you’re trying to gain the support of another country, then you want to do everything you can that they would act in a cooperative fashion.

When you announce that you’re going to launch an attack into another country, it’s pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us….

We need to help the Pakistani government go into Waziristan, where I visited, a very rough country, and — and get the support of the people, and get them to work with us and turn against the cruel Taliban and others.

And by working and coordinating our efforts together, not threatening to attack them, but working with them, and where necessary use force, but talk softly, but carry a big stick.

Yesterday, during McCain’s Heritage Foundation event, I asked the senator about reports that the administration was planning to strike Quetta. His answer was a bit long-winded, but clearly McCain expressed continuing opposition to a US strike into Pakistan, preferring instead to let Pakistan handle it. Here’s the transcript:

QUESTION I’m Bob Dreyfuss from The Nation. During the campaign, you and Senator Obama disagreed about the idea of taking the war across the border into Pakistan. He suggested that was a good idea, and you expressed some concern about taking the war into an allied country. Now there’s a lot of talk about going after the Taliban shura in Quetta., … putting pressure on the Pakistanis but also threatening to do it ourselves with drone attacks or other attacks. Do you think that’s a good or a bad idea?

MCCAIN I think the best idea is to get our Pakistani friends and allies to help out in that effort, number one. And number two, as we all know, it’s no secret, that there are Predator, across-the-border operations taking place against specific targets, with the agreement — or maybe I shouldn’t use the word ‘agreement’ — with the silence of the Pakistani government concerning that. Third, I would like to point out that if we were having this conversation about eight or nine months ago, there was enormous question about the capability and commitment of Pakistan, indeed, about the very stability of the Pakistani government. They will continue to have difficulties, but the capability of the Pakistani miitary has far exceeded most expectations, their operations into Waziristan and other areas. In fact, there was a time a month ago that they were complaining that we weren’t doing enough on the Afghan side of the border. So I still believe that an outright US military attack into Pakistan would probably arouse already seriously latent — in some cases, not so latent — anti-American sentiment. And I don’t think we have exhausted the option of the Pakistani military carrying out this mission over time.

By no means, of course, is McCaina an AfPak dove. On the contrary, he spent the bulk of his time at Heritage praising the president’s decision to escalate the war, and he lambasted Obama for declaring that he will start withdrawing US forces in July, 2011. “It doesn’t matter if we call it a ‘cliff’ or a ‘ramp,’ it’s still an exit sign,” said McCain. He added: “We cannot afford to lose this conflict. The repercussions of defeat would reverberate for decades if we do.” He called on President Obama to use his rhetorical powers to convince the country that winning the war in Afghanistan is an urgent priority, and he pledged to do his utmost to rally support for the president’s policy. “America needs to know why winning this war is so important to our national security.”

Incidentally, McCain himself didn’t explain why it is so important. It’s a difficult case to make, since Al Qaeda is nearly vanquished and has little or no presence at all in Afghanistan, and since the Taliban is solely focused on restoring its benighted rule to Afghanistan, and it hasn’t made any threats against the United States or its allies. Above all, since the Taliban can’t be defeated militarily, it isn’t clear why the addition of tens of thousands of US troops will make things better.

However, even McCain acknowledged, in his talk yesterday, that a crucial part of the US effort in AfPak is diplomatic, something that Obama has de-emphasized in recent speeches. McCain said that it is critical to involve Afghanistan’s neighbors in search of a solution. “No one disputes that Afghanistan’s neighbors will have influence in Afghanistan,” he said. “The question is, what kind?” The United States, said McCain, has to broker a deal for regional cooperation to help stabilize Afghanistan.