U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama suggested Friday that the United States one day might have to launch surgical missile strikes into Iran and Pakistan to keep extremists from getting control of nuclear bombs.
Obama, a Democratic state senator from the Hyde Park neighborhood, made the remarks during a meeting Friday with the Tribune editorial board. Obama’s Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, was invited to attend the same session but declined.
Iran announced on Tuesday that it has begun converting tons of uranium into gas, a crucial step in making fuel for a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency has called for Iran to suspend all such activities.
Obama said the United States must first address Iran’s attempt to gain nuclear capabilities by going before the United Nations Security Council and lobbying the international community to apply more pressure on Iran to cease nuclear activities. That pressure should come in the form of economic sanctions, he said.
But if those measures fall short, the United States should not rule out military strikes to destroy nuclear production sites in Iran, Obama said.
“The big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures, including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point are we going to, if any, are we going to take military action?” Obama asked.
Given the continuing war in Iraq, the United States is not in a position to invade Iran, but missile strikes might be a viable option, he said. Obama conceded that such strikes might further strain relations between the U.S. and the Arab world.
“In light of the fact that we’re now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in,” he said.
“On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran. … And I hope it doesn’t get to that point. But realistically, as I watch how this thing has evolved, I’d be surprised if Iran blinked at this point.”
As for Pakistan, Obama said that if President Pervez Musharraf were to lose power in a coup, the United States similarly might have to consider military action in that country to destroy nuclear weapons it already possesses. Musharraf’s troops are battling hundreds of well-armed foreign militants and Pakistani tribesmen in increasingly violent confrontations.
Obama said that violent Islamic extremists are a vastly different brand of foe than was the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and they must be treated differently.
“With the Soviet Union, you did get the sense that they were operating on a model that we could comprehend in terms of, they don’t want to be blown up, we don’t want to be blown up, so you do game theory and calculate ways to contain,” Obama said. “I think there are certain elements within the Islamic world right now that don’t make those same calculations.
“… I think there are elements within Pakistan right now–if Musharraf is overthrown and they took over, I think we would have to consider going in and taking those bombs out, because I don’t think we can make the same assumptions about how they calculate risks.”
Obama’s willingness to consider additional military action in the Middle East comes despite his early and vocal opposition to the Iraq war. Obama, however, also has stressed that he is not averse to using military action as a last resort, although he believes that President Bush did not make that case for the Iraq invasion.
Invitations were extended to both Obama and Keyes several weeks ago to appear before the Tribune editorial board in a debate-style setting. Obama accepted and Keyes did not, even though the Republican has accused his rival of ducking debates and has declared a desire to take on Obama in any venue.
“How can I be any clearer about this?” Keyes said in an Aug. 10 news conference. “I don’t care what the format is. I don’t care what the topics are. … I am ready to go to any forum put together in any way that is in the best interests of the people of Illinois.”
A Keyes aide said the Republican would not appear because the session was not a public forum that could be covered by media other than the Tribune. Obama and Keyes have agreed to three public debates in October, though Keyes had sought more.
Also during the session, Obama said that, if elected, he likely would make the health-care crisis his first priority. He said he would seek to expand the federal program that gives aid to poor children without health coverage, improve the COBRA program to allow for greater portability of coverage, and push for small businesses to receive tax credits to help pay for employee health insurance.
Earlier Friday, Obama clarified his position on gay marriage after several days of criticism from Keyes on the issue. Keyes, a vehement opponent of gay marriage who has called homosexuals “selfish hedonists,” charged during a campaign swing Downstate this week that Obama favors gay marriage.
But during a taping of WBBM-AM’s “At Issue,” Obama said that his Christian faith dictates that marriage should be between a man and woman.
“I’m a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman,” Obama said.
Obama said he would not let his religious beliefs dictate the way he approaches public policy. He said he would supports civil unions between gay and lesbian couples, as well as letting individual states determine if marriage between gay and lesbian couples should be legalized.
“Giving them a set of basic rights would allow them to experience their relationship and live their lives in a way that doesn’t cause discrimination,” Obama said. “I think it is the right balance to strike in this society.”