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The Candidates on U.S.-Pakistan Policy

October 23, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

Instability in Pakistan has steadily escalated in the course of the U.S. presidential campaign. Given the country’s geo-strategic importance to Washington, its deteriorating situation has served as a litmus test of sorts for candidates seeking to assert their foreign policy credentials and clarify their views on U.S. struggles against al-Qaeda. President Pervez Musharraf’s temporary institution of martial law and the assassination in December 2007 of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto spurred U.S. candidates to revisit their positions on U.S.-Pakistan policy. Candidates of both parties have expressed worry about the tenuous state of Pakistani democracy at a time when the country is relied on as a bulwark against al-Qaeda.

The United States provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Pakistani government in military aid, mostly aimed at counterterrorism efforts in the region. At the same time, U.S. policymakers remain ill at ease over volatility in the nuclear-armed country, the influence there of Islamic fundamentalists, and the country’s precarious border with Afghanistan. Some U.S. presidential candidates have directly advised Pakistani politicians amid their own campaigning in the United States. The next U.S. president is expected to face an unpredictable scenario in Pakistan that could further inflame an already troubled U.S. relationship with the broader Middle East.

Democratic Ticket on U.S. Policy toward Pakistan

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

Pakistan first achieved notoriety in the presidential campaign in summer 2007 when Obama said he believed the United States should hunt al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President [Pervez] Musharraf will not act, we will," he said at the time. Obama says the "growing sanctuary" for al-Qaeda in Pakistan is a result of failed military strategy in Iraq.

The United States needs a policy that "compels Pakistani action against terrorists who threaten our common security and are using the FATA and the Northwest Territories of Pakistan as a safe haven," Obama said in a July 2008 speech. The same week, in an interview with NBC's Meet the Press, Obama said too much U.S. financial assistance to Pakistan has been military aid, and "not enough of it has been in the form of building schools and building infrastructure in the country to help develop and give opportunity to the Pakistani people."

Obama congratulated Asif Ali Zardari on his election to Pakistan's presidency in September 2008, and praised Zardari for pledging to "return this office to its traditional stature, and return to Parliament the powers unconstitutionally appropriated to the presidency." He also said he was pleased with the reinstatement of several deposed judges, a move which he called "an important step towards the restoration of a truly independent judiciary."

In November 2007, Obama cosponsored a resolution condemning Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency, and calling for an investigation into a prior assassination attempt on opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) has taken a particularly active role in engaging Pakistani leaders and raising awareness about the crisis in the country, which he has called "the most complex country we deal with." In an October 2007 Democratic debate, Biden warned that an unstable Pakistan would have far more dangerous implications for the United States than a nuclear Iran.

Biden cosponsored the Enhanced Participation with Pakistan Act of 2008, which would triple U.S. non-military aid to Pakistan, granting $7.5 billion over five years in assistance for development projects. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2008, but has not yet reached a vote in the Senate as a whole. In November 2007, Biden said as president, he would increase humanitarian aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year, triple what it is now (NPR). He advocates tying non-security aid to Pakistan to "progress in developing democratic institutions and meeting good-governance norms."

Before Bhutto's assassination, Biden said he would reexamine "big-ticket weapons systems" in U.S. military aid to Pakistan, including F-16 jets and P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft, if Musharraf did not "restore his nation to the democratic path." In 2007, Biden cosponsored a resolution condemning Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency, and calling on Musharraf to relinquish his military post, which he later did. In August 2008, Biden applauded Musharraf for resigning from the presidency of Pakistan.

Biden said in a November 2007 speech that increasing U.S. resources in Afghanistan "would embolden Pakistan's government to take a harder line on the Taliban and al-Qaeda."

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Republican Ticket on U.S. Policy toward Pakistan

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has advocated continued U.S. cooperation with the Pakistani government to "dismantle the cells and camps that the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintain in his country." In a November 2007 Foreign Affairs essay, he warned that the "Talibanization of Pakistani society is advancing," and said the United States should make "a long-term commitment to the country." This would include bolstering Pakistan's security capabilities to enhance "Pakistan's ability to act against insurgent safe havens." He also said the United States should "bring children into schools and out of extremist madrassas," though he did not specify how the United States should approach that task. McCain said in a September 2008 presidential debate he is "not prepared at this time to cut off aid to Pakistan," and that he would not say "out loud" that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan.

In a May 2008 speech, McCain said the United States should "engage actively" with India and Pakistan to improve nuclear security and to "construct a secure global nuclear order that eliminates the likelihood of proliferation and the possibility of nuclear conflict."

After opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's assassination, McCain said as president he would immediately meet with the National Security Council to find "maintain order, or restore order, whichever is the case in Pakistan" (CBS).

McCain criticized the Pakistani government's peace agreement with Islamic militants in the Waziristan province in December 2006. "The attacks from that area have increased, and we think that unless there is some dramatic change, that we will continue to see those increases," McCain said (AP).

In 2001, McCain cosponsored the Pakistan Emergency Economic Development and Trade Support Act. The bill, which never passed, was aimed at easing textile trade with Pakistan as a means of bolstering its economy and government.

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Sarah Palin
Republican Party Nominee - Vice President

Palin said in October 2008 that the United States should not advocate strikes against terrorists in Pakistan (CBS) without the Pakistani government's approval, arguing that such a maneuver would be "invading the sovereign territory of a troubled partner in the war against terrorism." In September 2008, Palin said she would "absolutely" support cross-border attacks into Pakistan (CBS) if it was necessary to "stop the terrorists from coming any further in."   Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) later retracted her comment (CNN), which was not in alignment with his position on the subject. McCain said Palin shares his views on Pakistan policy. Palin also followed up on her statement (AP), emphasizing in an interview with the CBS Evening News that a McCain-Palin administration would never "get out there and show our cards to terrorists, in this case, to enemies and let them know what the game plan was."

Palin met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (LAT) in September 2008.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on U.S. Policy toward Pakistan

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

After Pakistan's February 2008 elections, Clinton commended the people of Pakistan "for exercising their constitutional right to vote and choose their own leaders." She also said the Pakistani elections indicate that the United States should change its "one-dimensional" policy of focusing on Musharraf "to the exclusion of other important political actors in Pakistan and its civil society." She said the United States should increase its non-military assistance to Pakistan to "strengthen democratic institutions, build civil society, and improve economic and educational opportunities."

Clinton said she would appoint a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan to develop a "regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda."

Clinton criticized Barack Obama in August 2007 for his pledge to pursue al-Qaeda in Pakistan. She called it “a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamic extremists who are in bed with al-Qaeda and Taliban.” Still, Clinton said in summer 2007 that if the United States gains “actionable intelligence that Osama bin Laden or other high-value targets were in Pakistan,” she would “ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured” (ABC).

Clinton foreign policy adviser Lee Feinstein said in December 2007 that Clinton “opposed the Bush administration’s coddling of President Musharraf, and stood steadfastly with the people of Pakistan in their struggle for democracy and against terrorism.” He issued the statement in response to criticism from the Obama campaign that Clinton’s initial support for the Iraq war in some way contributed to the current chaos in Pakistan (TIME).

In October 2007, Benazir Bhutto discussed the difficulties Clinton could face as a woman head of government in an interview with New York magazine. In early 2007, Clinton met with Musharraf in Lahore, Pakistan, to discuss cooperation on counterterrorism efforts in the region (Reuters). In November 2007, Clinton cosponsored a resolution condemning Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency, and calling for an investigation into a prior assassination attempt on Bhutto.

After Pakistan's February 2008 elections, Clinton commended the people of Pakistan "for exercising their constitutional right to vote and choose their own leaders." She also said the Pakistani elections indicate that the United States should change its "one-dimensional" policy of focusing on Musharraf "to the exclusion of other important political actors in Pakistan and its civil society." She said the United States should increase its non-military assistance to Pakistan to "strengthen democratic institutions, build civil society, and improve economic and educational opportunities."

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) has been critical of the Bush administration’s policy in Pakistan, and says Bush “never should have outsourced winning the Afghan war of necessity against al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime to General Musharraf and the Pakistani armed forces.” In November 2007, Dodd said the United States should “maintain relations with the government and people of Pakistan, including Pakistani Armed Forces, as we support internal efforts to broker a political compromise to the internal conflict.” He opposes cutting off assistance to Pakistan, and said additional aid “might even be necessary.”

A 26-year member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dodd has traveled to Pakistan and says he got to know Bhutto “very well over the years.” After her death, Dodd said the United States must “do everything in our power to help Pakistan continue the path toward democracy and full elections.” He said the “first priority must be to ensure stability in this critical nuclear state.”

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

Edwards called Bhutto’s death a “contemptible, cowardly act.” In a phone call with Musharraf shortly after the assassination, Edwards said he urged the Pakistani leader to “continue on the path to democratization” and to allow for international investigators to look into her death. In November 2007, Edwards said the United States should use economic and military aid to Pakistan as leverage to “push Musharraf toward open free elections; toward more democratic reform, to more transparency in the way both the government operates and the economy operates” (NYT).

He also called on Musharraf to bring “democratic reformers into the government,” and to extend “the reach of the legitimate government to the tribal regions, not backing down to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” He said Musharraf should “support judicial review and the separation of powers.”

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

Mike Gravel’s stance on this issue is unknown.

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Kucinich blames U.S. meddling in Pakistani affairs for the unrest there, and he urged the United States to “stop adding fuel to the fire” in the region after Bhutto’s death. He said the U.S. government should work to “convene a meeting at the highest levels to begin a new effort towards stabilization and peace” in the region.

Kucinich cosponsored the Pakistani Temporary Protected Status Act of 2005, which would have given temporary protected status to Pakistani immigrants after a major earthquake there. That measure was not voted on.

In July 2006, Kucinich expressed concern that the U.S.-India nuclear deal could spark an arms race between India and Pakistan.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Among presidential candidates, Richardson has taken one of the toughest lines toward Pakistan’s government. He says Musharraf should step down and allow the formation of a “broad-based coalition government, consisting of all the democratic parties.” Until that occurs, Richardson says, the United States should withhold all military aid to Pakistan. Richardson said in an October 2007 speech that the United States should “redeploy additional combat brigades to Afghanistan” to encourage Pakistan and NATO efforts in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In a December 2007 speech, Richardson said the United States should send two brigades to “reinforce our presence along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on U.S. Policy toward Pakistan

Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

After Bhutto’s assassination, Giuliani said the United States should “redouble” its efforts along the Afghan-Pakistani border “to make sure there’s not a slip back to terrorists,” (AP) though he did not indicate specifically what that would mean in terms of U.S. troop presence. He said the United States might need to assign increased security resources to the region, and should consider air strikes on al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan (USA Today).

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee’s response to the Pakistani crisis in late December 2007 raised concern in the media about his foreign policy experience. He made erroneous comments about the country’s state of emergency and the number of Pakistani illegal immigrants in the United States (TIME).

In general, Huckabee has said the U.S. “failure to engage al-Qaeda in Pakistan seems to be leading inexorably to their attacking us again.” In a September 2007 speech, Huckabee criticized the Bush administration’s policy toward Pakistan as having “allowed al-Qaeda to metastasize and get into the blood stream of the Islamic world, with its ‘franchises’ of local terror groups who give their allegiance to headquarters in Pakistan and get assistance in return.” He compared the U.S. focus on Iraq “at the expense of Pakistan or Iran” to “dealing with a neighbor’s house that is on fire, while ignoring the house on the other side that is filled with carbon monoxide.” Huckabee says the United States should counter extremist influence by helping “meet the needs of Pakistan’s poor.”

In his Foreign Affairs article, Huckabee called for a policy of “tough love” toward Pakistan, and said as president he will pursue al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (D-CA) appears to view the relationship between the United States and Pakistan as effective in assisting U.S. goals in the war on terror. In 2007, Hunter criticized Obama’s pledge to attack al Qaeda targets in Pakistan. “When you have an ally that is supporting you, and we are working together in cooperation with the Pakistani military in that critical border area, you don’t announce that you’re going to invade the country,” he told the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

In November 2007, Hunter commented on Musharraf’s temporary implementation of a state of emergency in Pakistan. He said the United States should “ not rush to abandon Musharraf, but work with him to get Pakistan back on the path toward democracy, including the release of political dissidents and the reinstatement of the Supreme Court.” He also said the United States might consider “lending our own security capabilities to ensure the strongest possible protection of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile.” 

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) opposes U.S. aid to Pakistan's government. In 2005, he criticized the granting of $638 million in aid to Pakistan as unconstitutional.

In December 2007, Paul criticized the U.S. alliance with Pakistan as a provocation to al-Qaeda. He also criticized those advocating military action against terrorists in Pakistan. Threatening Pakistan "makes no sense whatsoever," he said at an August 2007 Republican debate.

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney says the United States should try to bolster moderate forces in Pakistan to prevent "radical jihadists" from taking power.

At an August 2007 Republican debate, Romney criticized Obama's plan to enter Pakistan with "actionable intelligence" to pursue al-Qaeda. Obama "says he wants to unilaterally go in and potentially bomb a nation which is our friend," said Romney. "We're trying to strengthen Musharraf. We're trying to strengthen the foundations of democracy and freedom in that country so that they will be able to reject the extremists."

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson stresses the need to regain stability in Pakistan, but said in late December 2007 that President Bush should urge Musharraf not to reinstate martial law.

In November 2007, Thompson called for a “hardball” approach to Musharraf in response to the state of emergency instituted at the time, but did not advocate cutting off aid entirely (BBC).

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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