Here inside the only Beltway that matters, the insiders, experts and politicos are going through one of their favorite rituals -- a season of fevered discussions about the latest Bob Woodward book offering inside gossip about all the president's people. As always, these holy days begin with a series of A1 excerpts from said volume in the Washington Post. These rites require journalistic sermons on several topics:
(1) Who does this latest volume hurt more, the Republicans or the Democrats?
(2) Is this volume more embarrassing to the current regime than the volumes published during the previous regime (with optional discussions of whether Woodward is right, center-right, center or center-left in his political orientation)?
(3) Who looks worse in this volume, the president or the president's top aides? What does this tell us about who leaked the most information to Woodward and his research team?
(4) And that old favorite: What kind of spell does Woodward cast over people to get them to talk to him when they know that it is almost impossible to keep sourcing secrets hidden for long here in the world's most powerful high school?
What role does religion play in this new book? Well, that depends on whether one considers politics to be a form of organized religion.
However, part three of the "Obama's Wars" series does include a very interesting ghost, one that even makes it into the headline: "Obama: 'We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan.' "
The story opens last May, when President Barack Obama sends retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, his national security adviser, and CIA Director Leon Panetta to Pakistan on a secret mission -- to discuss with President Asif Ali Zardari the connections between the Times Square bomber and terrorist groups that operate inside Pakistan.
Saith Woodward's omnipresent narrator voice:
Jones thought that Pakistan -- a U.S. ally with an a la carte approach of going after some terrorist groups and supporting others -- was playing Russian roulette. The chamber had turned out to be empty the past several times, but Jones thought it was only a matter of time before there was a round in it.
Fears about Pakistan had been driving President Obama's national security team for more than a year. Obama had said toward the start of his fall 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review that the more pressing U.S. interests were really in Pakistan, a nuclear power with a fragile civilian government, a dominant military and an intelligence service that sponsored terrorist groups.
Not only did al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban operate from safe havens within Pakistan, but -- as U.S. intelligence officials had repeatedly warned Obama -- terrorist groups were recruiting Westerners whose passports would allow them to move freely in Europe and North America.
Safe havens would no longer be tolerated, Obama had decided. "We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan," he declared during an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 25, 2009, near the end of the strategy review. The reason to create a secure, self-governing Afghanistan, he said, was "so the cancer doesn't spread there."
The story rolls on. If the bomb had exploded, we are told, the United States would have been forced to act -- using a secret plan that involved bombing 150 different terrorist camps inside Pakistan. By the way, that's a lot of terrorist camps.
This threat confuses Pakistani officials, since bombs go off in their streets all the time. Why would Americans be so upset about one bombing? Etc., etc., etc. Finally, the Pakistani leaders receive this ultimatum:
"You can do something that costs you no money," Jones said. "It may be politically difficult, but it's the right thing to do if you really have the future of your country in mind. And that is to reject all forms of terrorism as a viable instrument of national policy inside your borders."
"We rejected it," Zardari responded.
Jones and Panetta had heard such declarations before.
So what is the religion ghost in this story?
To find it, try to answer this simple question: What is "the cancer" that is "in Pakistan"?
It appears that American leaders believe all terrorists are evil. It appears that on the ground, Pakistani leaders believe that some of the terrorists are evil and that some are not quite as evil and some, in fact, may not be evil at all, but worthy of support from elements of the national establishment.
Meanwhile, the Americans believe that the deadly problem in the region is a "cancer" that lives in Pakistan.
So, from the point of view of the Americans, what is this "cancer"? And from the point of view of the Pakistani officials, what is the difference between a good terrorist and a bad terrorist? At this point, I think that it's appropriate to ask if these disagreements have anything to do with two terms that do not appear anywhere in this Washington Post story -- "sharia" and "Islam."
Now, are there Muslims who reject all acts of terrorism? Yes there are, millions of them, in fact. Are there Muslims who believe that terrorism is justified in conflicts with infidels and other enemies of Islam? Yes, there are. Are there other Muslims who believe that acts of terrorism can even be justified in conflicts with other Muslims? Yes, there are.
What does this have to do with the story that Woodward is telling? Beats me.