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Obama’s right about Pakistan. But who would follow?

BARACK OBAMA was right to threaten to invade Pakistan in order to hit al-Qaida, quite literally, where it lives. And as long as we’re on this tack, remind me again why it is that we’re not at war with Iran.

OK, OK, I know the reasons: Our military is overextended; the American people lack the appetite; the nutball factor is only an inch deep in Iran, and once you get past Ahmadinejad and the more radical mullahs the Iranian people aren’t so bad, but they’d get crazy quick if we attacked, and so forth.

I can also come up with reasons not to invade Pakistan, or even to talk about invading Pakistan. We’ve heard them often enough. Pakistan is (and say this in reverent tones) a sovereign country; Pervez Musharraf is our “friend” we need him helping us in the War on Terror; he is already politically weak and this could do him in; he could be replaced by Islamists sufficiently radical that they would actively support Osama bin Laden and friends, rather than merely fail to look aggressively enough to find them; fighting our way into, and seeking a needle in, the towering, rocky haystacks of that region is easier said than done, and on and on.

But when you get down to it, it all boils down to the reason I mentioned in passing in the first instance — Americans lack the appetite. So with a long line of people vying to be our new commander in chief, it’s helpful when one of them breaks out of the mold of what we might want to hear, and spells out a real challenge before us.

Most of us believe that the baddest bad guys in this War on Terror have been hiding in, and more relevantly operating from, the remote reaches of western Pakistan ever since they slipped through our fingers in 2001.

The diplomatic and strategic delicacy that the Bush administration (contrary to its image) has demonstrated with regard to the generalissimo in Pakistan has been something to behold. Now we see this guy we have done so much, by our self-restraint, to build up on the verge of collapse. We could end up with the crazy clerics anyway, or at least a surrender to, or sharing of power with, Benazir Bhutto.

But even if all the conditions were right abroad — even if the mountains were leveled and a new regime in Islamabad sent our Army an engraved invitation along with Mapquest directions to bin Laden’s cave — we’d still have the problem of American political shyness.

Same deal with Iran. In the past week a senior U.S. general announced that elite Iranian troops are in Iraq training Shiite militias in how to better kill Americans — and Sunnis, of course.

So it is that the United States is asking the United Nations to declare the Revolutionary Guard Corps — less a military outfit than a sort of government-sanctioned Mafia family, with huge legit covers in pumping oil, operating ports and manufacturing pharmaceuticals — a terrorist organization.

What is the response of the Revolutionary Guards to all this? Well, they’re not exactly gluing halos to their turbans. The head of the Guard Corps promised that “America will receive a heavier punch from the guards in the future.”

General Yahya Rahim Safavi was quoted in an Iranian newspaper as adding, “We will never remain silent in the face of US pressure and we will use our leverage against them.”

And the United States is engaged in debate with other “civilized” nations over what names we will call these thugs. The world’s strongest nation — its one “indispensable nation,” to quote President Clinton’s secretary of state — ought to be able to work up a more muscular response than that. If we hadn’t gained a recent reputation for shyness, all we’d really have to do with those muscles is flex them.

The one thing I liked about George W. Bush was that he was able to convince the world’s bad guys (and a lot of our friends, too, but you can’t have everything) that he was crazy enough to cross borders to go after them, if they gave him half an excuse. This worked, as long as the American people were behind him.

If only the next president were able to project similar willingness to act, and be credible about it. A saber rattled by such a leader can put a stop to much dangerous nonsense in the world.

But does the will exist in the American electorate? Not now, it doesn’t. When Obama said his tough piece, the nation sort of patted its charismatic prodigy on his head and explained that he was green and untested, and was bound to spout silly things now and then. (Rudy Giuliani, to his credit, said Obama was right. Others tut-tutted over the “rookie mistake.”)

While we’re thinking about who’s going to lead the United States, maybe we’d better think about whether America will follow a leader who says what ought to be said — whether it’s on Iraq, Pakistan or Iran, or energy policy. Will we follow a president who tells us we should increase the price of gasoline rather than moaning about how “high” it is? How about a president who says we’re going to have to pay more for less in Social Security benefits in the future?

Winning in Iraq and chasing down bin Laden are not necessarily either/or alternatives. This nation is large enough, rich enough and militarily savvy enough to field a much larger, more versatile force. Can you say “draft”? Well, actually, no — within the context of American politics with a presidential election coming up, you can’t. Not without being hooted down.

That crowd of candidates is vying to lead a crippled giant. And the giant, sitting there fecklessly munching junk food and watching “reality” TV, can only blame himself for his condition.

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