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At a media availability in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 20, 2008, Sen. John McCain took a claim that President Bush made a week earlier and cranked it up a notch, saying that Sen. Barack Obama wants to bomb Pakistan.
It's an extreme charge because Pakistan has been a key ally to the United States. We find McCain's remark seriously distorts what Obama actually said.
Here's the exchange from the media availability:
QUESTION: Senator McCain, last night in your speech you talked about Barack Obama saying that he once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan.
MCCAIN: I said bombing. My statement was bombing. I don't know if you received a text, but my statement that I made at my speech was that he suggested bombing Pakistan without their permission.
QUESTION: Regardless, if you go back and look at Barack Obama's (inaudible) what he's saying is not going after Pakistan, but going after al Qaeda targets within Pakistan. And as you know...
MCCAIN: That's still bombing Pakistan.
QUESTION: But there are some people even inside the Bush administration who think that going unilaterally and not, sort of, being at the mercy of Musharraf may not be the worst idea.
MCCAIN: Well, the best idea is to not broadcast what you're going to do. That's naive. The first thing that you do is you make your plans and you carry out your operations as necessary for America's national security interest. 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.
McCain's remarks echo a comment made by President Bush in an interview Feb. 17 on Fox News Sunday after he was was asked what he thought of Sen. Barack Obama. "I certainly don't know what he believes in," Bush said. "The only foreign policy thing I remember he said was he's going to attack Pakistan and embrace (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, which — I think I commented that in a press conference when I was asked about it."
Bush and McCain are referring to a speech that Obama gave in August 2007 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He spoke about the problem of terrorists at large within Pakistan. He said he would continue to provide military aid to Pakistan as long as the authorities there work to close terrorist training camps and prevent the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan.
Then Obama added:
"I understand that (Pakistan) President 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-Qaida leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
The transcript of his speech makes it clear that Obama is talking about targeting terrorists within the country regardless of whether he has the permission of the Pakistani government.
We recognize that McCain is making a larger point questioning the wisdom of Obama telegraphing our future military plans and we are not addressing whether that is a good idea. But it is a serious distortion to say Obama wants to "attack Pakistan," as President Bush did, and an even more serious one that he supports "bombing Pakistan," as McCain did. (Indeed, all Obama said was that he would "act.")
For the U.S. to bomb Pakistan would essentially be no different from the U.S. bombing Mexico or Great Britain, two other allies.
The charge from Bush and McCain is especially unusual in the light of a Feb. 19 article in the Washington Post that revealed missiles from a CIA-operated Predator aircraft recently killed a key al Qaeda commander in the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. The U.S. government did not have permission from the Pakistan government for the attack, the article said.
A week ago, we rated Bush's statement, which included a mischaracterization of Obama's position on Ahmadinejad, as False. But McCain has ratcheted up the rhetoric, saying bombing instead of just attacking and adding that Obama wants to "bomb a country that is a sovereign nation."
That's not just wrong. That's Pants-on-Fire wrong.
Barack Obama campaign Web site, Speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars , Aug. 1, 2008
Associated Press, McCain says Obama is simplistic to warn of bombing Pakistan , Aug. 2, 2007
CNN, Democratic debate transcript , July 23, 2007
Associated Press, Clinton: Obama is 'naive' on foreign policy , July 24, 2007
White House Web site, President Bush Press Conference , Aug. 9, 2007
Associated Press, Obama: Would meet Iranian as president , Sept. 24, 2007
New York Times, Obama Envisions New Iran Approach , Nov. 2, 2007
Washington Post, Unilateral Strike Called a Model For U.S. Operations in Pakistan, Feb. 19, 2008
CQ Transcript Wire, Sen. McCain Holds a Media Availability, Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 20, 2008
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