WASHINGTON — Democrat Barack Obama said Wednesday that if he were president and had good intelligence about top terrorists in Pakistan, he'd send U.S. troops to hunt them down if Pakistan's government wouldn't do it.
Seeking to establish his foreign-policy credentials a week after Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., accused him of being naive for being willing to talk with the leaders of hostile nations without preconditions, the first-term Illinois senator gave a comprehensive speech on fighting global terrorism before the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Obama called for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and redeploying at least two more brigades to Afghanistan, along with $1 billion in additional nonmilitary aid. He reiterated a willingness to talk with leaders from nations such as Iran, Syria and North Korea: "The lesson of the Bush years is that not talking does not work. Go down the list of countries we've ignored and see how successful that strategy has been."
But his controversial words about Pakistan — where Osama Bin Laden's al Qaida has been regrouping, according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate — drew the most attention.
Obama said he'd make hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional on President Pervez Musharraf moving to shutter terrorism training camps, preventing terrorists from hiding in his country and stopping the Taliban from running back and forth across the border to attack in Afghanistan.
"I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges," Obama said. "But let me make this clear: There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will."
Foreign-affairs experts have warned that U.S. incursions into Pakistan could destabilize the country's government and possibly lead to a radical Islamic regime in a nation that possesses nuclear weapons.
Clinton, through a campaign spokesman, declined to comment, but other Democratic presidential candidates weighed in.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware said Obama's speech suggested inexperience — not in substance, but in Obama's willingness to broadcast it.
"It's not something you talk about as president. It's something you do," Biden said at the National Press Club.
Biden noted the precarious nature of Musharraf's military regime in a country where sympathy for al Qaida is strong and where many distrust or feel hostile toward the United States. "The last thing you want to do is telegraph to the folks in Pakistan that we are about to openly violate their sovereignty, putting Musharraf in the position that it's virtually impossible for him . . . to cut a deal."
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said, "it is dangerous and irresponsible to leave even the impression the United States would needlessly and publicly provoke a nuclear power." While vowing to stop terrorists as president, he added, "but I will not declare my intentions for specific military action to the media in the context of a political campaign."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson essentially agreed with Obama.
"We need to reverse the Bush-Cheney policy of appeasement and make sure Musharraf knows his deal with the terrorists is completely unacceptable to the U.S. My international experience tells me that we should address this problem with tough diplomacy with General Musharraf first, leaving the military as a last resort."
Lee Hamilton, the president of the Wilson Center, said he was "very sympathetic" to Obama's stance. Hamilton is a former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and he co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that Congress appointed last year to study the situation in Iraq and make policy recommendations.
"It seems to me if we've learned anything at all about fighting terrorism, we've learned that we cannot permit al Qaida to have sanctuaries," Hamilton said. "Far preferable that Musharraf take them out. But if he does not, we must."
Hamilton said "Musharraf has always made the argument that the alternative to him is a radical government that would have its fingers on the nuclear trigger," but he concluded, "it's a very small risk. And we have a very large risk if you permit al Qaida to plan again to attack us."
Obama also proposed opening "America houses" in Islamic cities to provide access to the Internet, books, English lessons, job training and youth mentors. He pledged to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions for all terrorism interrogations. And he proposed spending an initial $5 billion to create an international intelligence-sharing program.
(Matt Stearns contributed to this report.)