This exchange from the first 2008 presidential debate is worth revisiting, in light of the spectacular bin Laden kill.
On one level, it’s a rare example of a high-level hypothetical scenario—the kind of shooting-the-breeze-about-world-historical-events conversation you might have with a friend at a bar—actually coming to pass.
More important, it seems, in retrospect, to have been powerfully predictive, as when Kennedy outflanked Nixon’s right on the “missile gap” issue: It soon became clear that his anticommunist hawkishness was sincere. From there, we wound up in the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam.
Here’s the one I’m talking about (see it on YouTube here):
McCain: Pakistan is a very important element in this, and I know how to work with them. And I guarantee you, I would not publicly state that I’m gonna attack them.
Obama: Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan. Here’s what I said. And if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know, that, if the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out. Now, I think that's the right strategy; I think that's the right policy.
Somewhat amazingly, President Obama was faced with exactly the kind of choice that Candidate Obama imagined, with the only wrinkle being that Pakistan was not “not unwilling to act,” but simply not trustworthy enough to be consulted.
Like Kennedy, President Obama wasn’t simply striking a pose. (It is needless to say that the bin Laden strike’s outcome was far more felicitous than the Bay of Pigs.) [See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.]
And oddly, McCain comes off, again in retrospect, as far too concerned with diplomatic courtesies and niceties. Would President McCain have made the same decision if presented with the same intelligence? Of course, he would have.
But, hapless candidate that he was, McCain suppressed his well-documented instinct for aggression and tried to paint Obama as a dangerously underexperienced foreign-policy novice.
History always works in funny ways—but rarely so quickly.