New York Times: For months, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have argued over whether Iraq was the right war to fight in 2003. On Friday night they delved for the first time into the problems one of them will face on Jan. 20: Whether America has to be ready to carry out military action inside Pakistan, an important ally, and against Iran’s nuclear program.
The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER
Published: September 26, 2008
For months, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have argued over whether Iraq was the right war to fight in 2003. On Friday night they delved for the first time into the problems one of them will face on Jan. 20: Whether America has to be ready to carry out military action inside Pakistan, an important ally, and against Iran’s nuclear program.
Curiously, there was more than a little role reversal in the first presidential debate. It was Mr. Obama who seemed more aligned with President Bush’s current policy of authorizing American special forces to cross the Afghan-Pakistan border into Pakistan’s tribal areas that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have used as a sanctuary.
In one of the more heated moments of the debate, Mr. Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, argued that he would take the war to Osama bin Laden’s cave door, whether Pakistan cooperated or not. And it was Mr. McCain, the Republican nominee, who argued that without Pakistan’s cooperation, any such operation was doomed.
Mr. McCain took the position that Mr. Bush had taken until this summer, when the president gave up on the Pakistani government in frustration. With no public announcement, Mr. Bush loosened the reins on American forces to go into sovereign Pakistani territory. Mr. Obama essentially argued on Friday night that Mr. Bush should have done that years ago, ridiculing the $10 billion that the administration had paid to the Pakistani military with little result.
At its core, the candidates’ argument is about the “central front” in the war on terrorism. Mr. Obama said it was, and always has been, Pakistan’s tribal areas and the neighboring areas of Afghanistan. Iraq, he argued, was a dangerous distraction. Mr. McCain made the case that Iraq was the central front, noting that Mr. bin Laden himself had declared that the battleground with America.
The debate over Iran became the testing ground on where the candidates stood on pre-emption and engagement. Mr. McCain repeatedly referred to Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel. But curiously, given his hawkish statements in the past, Mr. McCain did not repeat his previous argument that it might be better to attack Iran than to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon. Instead, he called for more-effective sanctions, suggesting that he does not think Mr. Bush ever really rallied the United States’ allies, namely France, Germany and Russia, to pressure Iran.
Mr. Obama shot back, arguing that the war in Iraq has empowered Iran. And he pointed out that the Iranians have built 4,000 centrifuges during the Bush years. (The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest number is slightly lower: 3,800.)
But Mr. Obama turned the discussion to argue that even while pressing Iran, the United States has to engage the Iranians directly. On this, he is in agreement with many in the State Department, though not Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Mr. McCain echoed the Bush administration’s argument, that negotiating directly with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would “legitimize” him, and that you do not sit down with Iranian leaders until they first meet “preconditions.” That has been American policy since 2006. The Bush administration has refused to sit down with Iranian leaders until they suspend building the centrifuges that produce uranium.