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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley August 21, 2008

Obama stretches foresight on Musharraf

For years, the U.S. government has had an uneasy relationship with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. While there was discomfort with Musharraf's dictatorial ways, he was also seen as a key ally in fighting al-Qaida, a moving target between Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.

Musharraf resigned on Aug. 18, 2008, rather than face imminent impeachment proceedings, and two days later Sen. Barack Obama issued a bit of an I-told-you-so.

"I argued for years that we need to move from a 'Musharraf policy' to a 'Pakistan policy,'" Obama said in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention on Aug. 19. "We must move beyond an alliance built on mere convenience or a relationship with one man. Now, with President Musharraf's resignation, we have the opportunity to do just that. That's why I've co-sponsored a bill to triple nonmilitary aid to the Pakistani people, while ensuring that the military assistance we do provide is used to take the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaida in the tribal regions of Pakistan."

The question here is whether Obama inflated his foresight on Musharraf in an effort to bolster his credibility on foreign policy. What did he say and when did he say it?

The Obama campaign provided a handful of citations.

In July, Obama said on CNN's Larry King Live: "In order for us to be effective in dealing with the resurgence of al-Qaida and the Taliban as they use Pakistan — the northwest provinces — as a sanctuary, we've got to have a stronger relationship with the Pakistani government — the new Pakistani government. We had put all our eggs in the Musharraf basket."

And then there's this from Obama, in Newsweek, in April: "There is a sizable middle class [in Pakistan] that believes in rule of law and believes in a government that is accountable to the people. So our willingness to put all our eggs in the Musharraf basket without understanding this other tradition, and without understanding that our choice in a place like Pakistan is not simply [between] military dictatorship or Islamic rule, led us to make a series of miscalculations that has weakened our fight against terrorism in the region."

And in March, Obama in the Washinton Post: "In Pakistan, I will reject the false choice between stability and democracy. In our unconditional support for Musharraf, we have gotten neither." And in February, at a Democratic debate: "I've said very clearly that we have put all our eggs in the Musharraf basket. That was a mistake. We should be going after al-Qaida and making sure that Pakistan is serious about hunting down terrorists, as well as expanding democracy."

Last November, Obama helped lead a Senate resolution that condemned Musharraf for invoking a state of emergency; and called on Musharraf to relinquish his position as chief of army staff of Pakistan and to allow for free and fair elections.

That clearly puts Obama on record in the past year.

"I believe Obama is correct in stating that he has wanted to move past a Musharraf-centric strategy in Pakistan for some time now," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.

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"To some extent, this shows genuine foresight, but it is important to note that Obama was not alone in this view," Markey told PolitiFact. "In fact, many people outside the Bush administration have been saying this — or something similar — since shortly after 9/11. It has been the common refrain of many think tankers, and of course it has been reiterated by Pakistani opposition leaders (from Benazir Bhutto down) who were excluded from power by Musharraf."

The question here is whether Obama's position is one he has advocated "for years."

Last August, Obama made headlines when he said during a speech in Washington, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets (in Pakistan) and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

Sen. John McCain later called that statement "naive" and said, "You don't broadcast that you are going to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation and that you are dependent on the good will of the people of that country to help you in the war — in the struggle against Taliban and the sanctuaries which they hold."

One could argue that Obama's vow to act independently against terrorist cells in Pakistan, if Musharraf wouldn't, amounted to advocacy for moving from a "Musharraf policy" to a "Pakistan policy." And that would put him on record a year ago.

But by way of rebuttal, the McCain campaign provided this Obama nugget from an MSNBC Democratic presidential debate on Aug. 7, 2007 (just days after Obama's if-Musharraf-won't-we-will line):

"I did not say that we would immediately go in (to Pakistan) unilaterally. What I said was that we have to work with Musharraf, because the biggest threat to American security right now are in the northwest provinces of Pakistan and that we should continue to give him military aid contingent on him doing something about that."

So even Obama, at this point, was talking about still trying to work with Musharraf.

Part of our conundrum here is that in the course of 24 hours, Obama changed the timeline on his claim of advocating the United States move from a 'Musharraf policy' to a 'Pakistan policy' — first stating that he advocated it "a year ago" and then ratcheting it up a day later, saying he had argued it "for years."

We checked the congressional record and couldn't find any statements from the floor or in the text of any legislation that Obama co-sponsored that suggests this was a "years"-old position.

If Obama had said he has been advocating this position for months, he'd be on solid footing. And he rightly gets credit for some foresight on the issue. But when he says it's a position he has argued "for years" he is giving himself more credit than even his campaign can confirm. We rate Obama's statement Barely True.


Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

The Library of Congress, "S.RES.372," A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate on the declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan

The Library of Congress, "S.RES.445," Title: A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate on the assassination of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, and the political crisis in Pakistan"

The Library of Congress, "S.3263," Title: A bill to authorize appropriations for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 to promote an enhanced strategic partnership with Pakistan and its people, and for other purposes

Barack Obama's Senate Web site, "Obama Urges Rigorous Review of U.S. Assistance to Pakistan" Nov. 8, 2007

New York Times, "Transcript: The Democratic Candidates Forum" Aug. 8, 2007

Obama campaign Web site, "Remarks of Senator Obama: The War We Need to Win" in Washington, DC, Aug. 1, 2007

Time, "Transcript: Obama's Remarks to the VFW" Aug. 19, 2008

Newsweek, "Obama's World" by Richard Wolffe, April 12, 2008

Washington Post, "Q&A: Obama on Foreign Policy" March 2, 2008

MSNBC, "Obama on Bhutto, Pakistan" Dec. 27, 2007

Interview with Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Aug. 20, 2008


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