On one issue – who'd be tougher on Al Qaeda – John McCain and Barack Obama are one-upping each other in rhetoric. It's a risky dynamic and may be giving a green light to the current president. Just before President Bush met Pakistan's new prime minister Monday, the US conducted an attack on Al Qaeda – inside Pakistan.
The unilateral airstrike by an unmanned drone allegedly killed Al Qaeda's leading expert on chemical and biological weapons, Abu Khabab al-Masri. The result may be difficult to argue against but this US violation of Pakistani sovereignty was criticized by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and perhaps most Pakistanis who cherish their recent return to full democracy.
And as if to disregard his guest, Mr. Bush stated that he "supports the sovereignty of Pakistan" – despite the same-day attack on one of Al Qaeda's havens in the largely lawless tribal areas.
In America's post-9/11 politics, a neoconservative idea of unilateral, sovereignty-breaking, and preemptive attacks against Al Qaeda is little debated. The United Nations gave its approval for the 2001 invasion of Taliban-run Afghanistan to oust Al Qaeda but not so for ongoing US attacks inside Pakistan.
And yet because Pakistan's military has done little to keep Al Qaeda in Pakistan from staging attacks on Europe and perhaps again on the US, both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain find it easy to compete on which one would be tougher in this front line of the war on terrorism.
During his recent foreign trip, Obama said that if the UShad "actionable intelligence against high-value Al Qaeda targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets," the US must strike. He also said Al Qaeda's training camps are growing in Pakistan and the group is plotting attacks against the US.
To further beef up his security credentials, Obama goes beyond McCain's support for current US practice of occasional, well-targeted attacks on Al Qaeda and says the US should not "tolerate a terrorist sanctuary" inside Pakistan.
As the November election nears, such hawkish talk may only grow longer talons.
One recent example is McCain trying to best Obama's call for two additional US brigades in Afghanistan by calling for three. And as for Al Qaeda in Pakistan, McCain tries to act presidential, criticizing Obama for tipping his hand in public on what he would do while at the same time indicating he too would meet the threat with force.
Political competition at home can sometimes create pressure for aggressive US foreign policy. In the 1980 race, Ronald Reagan's criticisms of President Carter's handling of the Iranian US-hostage crisis may have forced Mr. Carter into a disastrous rescue attempt. The 1998 four-day bombing of Iraq came during impeachment hearings of President Clinton.
War talk on the campaign stump can be dangerous. Pakistan mustn't be lost as an ally. Cooler heads in Congress have seen this danger and are proposing a multi-billion dollar aid package for Pakistan aimed at winning over the tribal areas into rejecting militant Islamists.
Perhaps that neocon idea – pushing democracy in other countries as a bulwark against terrorism – is something on which McCain and Obama should safely compete.