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Michael Sheehan, a former counterterrorism adviser to both Republicans and Democrats, says the differences between John McCain's and Barack Obama's terrorism policies are subtle and ambiguous.
John McCain and Barack Obama agree more than they disagree on terrorism-related policies, though they have sparred over positions of international cooperation in finding terrorists. Both McCain and Obama believe a law enforcement approach and a military approach are necessary to successfully fight terrorism.
McCain: He would focus on developing the intelligence necessary to uncover terrorism plots and developing the capability to respond and recover from terrorist attacks swiftly. McCain says he would focus on "depriving terrorists of the converts they seek and counter their teaching of the doctrine of hatred and despair." For McCain, a win in Iraq is key to the counterterrorism battle.
Obama: He would make the money currently directed toward U.S. military aid in Pakistan conditional on Pakistan making substantial progress in closing down terrorist training camps, evicting foreign fighters and preventing the Taliban's use of Pakistan as a staging area. Obama says he would "not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America." An exit from Iraq, Obama says, would enable the U.S. to direct more resources to the counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
U.S. elections since Sept. 11, 2001, have featured many debates about terrorism and how to counter it. This year, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have had sharp exchanges over the issue, with each accusing the other of taking the wrong approach.
Given that McCain consistently polls better than Obama on the question of how to fight terrorism, it is in McCain's interest to highlight the policy differences he has with Obama. But there aren't many, according to Michael Sheehan.
What Policy Differences?
Sheehan, who served in senior counterterrorism posts in both Republican and Democratic administrations, has been looking for major disagreements between McCain and Obama in this area. "There haven't been a whole lot of them," Sheehan says. "Most of these issues are issues of professional agencies doing the job that they're required to do. Most of the politics are purely designed to score points from one side or the other."
Policy differences may not be key here. The last ABC News/Washington Post poll with a question on terrorism asked people which candidate they trusted more to deal with terrorism, not which had the best position.
To the extent that there is a debate, several questions come up. One is whether fighting terrorism is a law enforcement challenge (find, arrest and prosecute the bad guys) or a military mission — to hunt down and kill them.
Another question is whether the U.S. should pursue terrorists on its own or work with other governments.
McCain has challenged Obama on both fronts, though not always consistently.
Obama once said he might order a military strike inside Pakistan against al-Qaida without the consent of the Pakistani government.
In February, McCain reminded voters of Obama's statement. McCain posed the question: Does America want a president with national security experience and good judgment, or "will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan?"
Law Enforcement Vs. Military Approaches
In that case, McCain seemed to be suggesting that Obama was inclined to take reckless military action. But last month, McCain and his spokesmen went after Obama for not being ready to use military force against al-Qaida.
In an interview with ABC in June, Obama noted that the U.S. was able to arrest and prosecute the terrorists responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. If the Bush administration had done "the exact same thing" in going after terrorists following the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama said, that approach would have upheld "the rule of law." To McCain and his advisers, this sounded like the old law enforcement approach.
The following day, McCain's campaign organized a telephone conference call to denounce Obama's statement. Former CIA director James Woolsey, a McCain adviser, took the lead, saying, "The approach that Sen. Obama is suggesting — that we do everything through the law enforcement system — is precisely what failed in the 1990s."
"I was director of central intelligence for the first two years of the first Clinton administration," Woolsey said. "And, of course, just a few months into that, we had the first World Trade Center bombing, and the administration proceeded with an almost complete law enforcement focus. It did not work."
Points Of Agreement
Michael Sheehan, who coordinated counterterrorism efforts for both the State Department and the New York Police Department, finds the dispute a little silly. Fighting terrorism successfully, Sheehan argues, requires both military and law enforcement methods, both based on good intelligence. He says McCain and Obama each recognize that point.
"Both campaigns have talked about using both instruments, and the argument of whether it's a military or just a law enforcement issue, in my view, are political talking points," Sheehan says.
Obama, meanwhile, has been using the terrorism issue to challenge McCain on Iraq. He argues that maintaining the war effort, as McCain wants to do, diverts resources from counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama has not recently threatened to take unilateral action against al-Qaida. In a speech last week, he emphasized cooperative approaches.
"Terrorism, unfortunately, has gone transnational and can strike anywhere, because they are able to harness technology just like businesses do," Obama said. "And so what that means is that we've got to spend time thinking about building alliances and restoring relationships with countries all around the world in order to deal with our national security."
McCain would not disagree. Sheehan, who describes himself as "fiercely" independent, thinks the campaign could actually draw the candidates together, embracing practical approaches to fighting terrorism.
"There's a great opportunity with a new administration next January to rebuild a consensus around some of these issues," Sheehan says. "And people can get away from these hot-button issues and political point-scoring and get down to a consensus on what makes sense."
One other factor could lower the heat in this debate: Terrorism worries are actually on the decline. Another attack could change that, but a CNN poll released this month showed that voters' concerns about terrorism are the lowest they've been since Sept. 11, 2001.