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McCain, Obama Clash on Tactics for Fighting Terrorism

This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News Channel, looking at the challenges facing the country in the 21st century.


WASHINGTON — Seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, plunged the United States into a global War on Terror — and with more than 170,000 U.S. troops still fighting on two foreign fronts — recent polls show American voters fixated chiefly on the economy, not terrorism or national security.

Yet the next president will confront a broad range of potential terrorist threats: from the ongoing assault by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that executed the Sept. 11 attacks, to Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East; from invisible biological, chemical and cyber attacks to Russia’s still unsecured nuclear arsenal.

Click here to see more on the candidates' anti-terror plans.

On the campaign trail, the candidates’ talk on terrorism has tended to focus almost exclusively on the two war zones.

“The war in Iraq did not work and has not made us safer,” Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said aboard his campaign plane June 18.

“Senator Obama from the beginning has said that the surge wouldn't work,” John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, shot back the next day, in a typical exchange.

The two agree on the broad strategic view in the War on Terror: Both identify radical Islamic jihadism as a major threat to U.S. security interests and the American way of life. Both have zeroed in on the mountainous, largely lawless tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistani border as the epicenter of the worldwide terrorist threat.

And both agree on some of the same tactical measures, such as closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yet the two differ on what to do with the detainees. McCain advocates relocating the military tribunals to American soil and denying enemy combatants full legal rights accorded American citizens. Obama, by contrast, supported a recent Supreme Court ruling granting such detainees the right of habeus corpus.

Overall, however, Obama and McCain have mostly clashed on tactics, and specifically on how best to secure the Pakistani badlands, where Al Qaeda’s leader, Usama bin Laden, is thought to reside, and where the counter-terrorism effort by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been fitful at best.

In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington on Aug. 1, 2007, Obama vowed, as commander in chief, to make American military and foreign aid to Pakistan ”conditional” on greater Pakistani progress in rooting terrorists out of the border areas. The Illinois senator also threatened to launch unilateral strikes on Pakistani soil under certain circumstances.

“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” Obama said.

Obama later admitted his prescription is, in fact, current U.S. doctrine. That didn’t stop McCain from faulting his Democratic rival for damaging a necessary American alliance. “In trying to sound tough, he has made it harder for the people whose support we most need to provide it,” McCain said on July 15 of this year.

Another feature of the campaign dynamic this year, where the subject of terrorism is concerned, is that both Obama and McCain, and their surrogates, routinely accuse each other of being stuck in the past.

“I think Senator McCain continues more of the same Bush policies that have failed, that have tattered American leadership and respect around the world,” said Tim Roemer, a former Sept. 11 commission member and senior adviser to the Obama campaign. “The 21st-century threat is not stocked in the last century or still attached to President Bush's failed policies.

Robert Kagan, a former State Department official and scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who is advising the McCain campaign, countered that Obama “tends to take a legalistic approach” to counter-terrorism policy.

“I worry that we would go back to the approach of the 1990s,” if Obama were elected, Kagan said. “We knew the bases of Al Qaeda were being established in Afghanistan. Again, we took a — pardon the expression — legalistic view about whether we should strike them or not according to various statutes.”

Alvin Felzenberg, a former Sept. 11 commission spokesman and author of "The Leaders We Deserved," a survey of American presidents, said neither candidate is paying enough attention to another key element in counter-terrorism policy: homeland security.

“There's been too much said, in a way, about Iraq and Afghanistan, and very little about the domestic situation,” Felzenberg told FOX News.

When both Obama and McCain secure their nominations and receive classified intelligence briefings, Felzenberg suggested they participate actively. He listed at least six questions they should ask: "What have we done? What plots have we aborted? What cells have we penetrated? How have the FBI and CIA handled it? How are we safer? How can we put more resources in that area?"

Click here to see more reports on America's Future.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."