Obama's first gaffe?

He chose his words very carefully, but U.S. President-elect Barack Obama nonetheless made big news in India with this exchange from today's press conference:

[Question:] During the campaign, you said that you thought the U.S. had a right to attack high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan if given actionable intelligence with or without the Pakistani government's permission. Two questions on that.

One, do you think India has that same right?

And, two [...] some people up there on the stage took issue with your saying that. They have strong opinions about issues ranging from Pakistan to the surge. And while they're all committed to have a successful United States, what private assurances have they given you that they will be able to carry out your vision even when they strongly disagree with that vision as some of them have been able to do in the past? [...]

OBAMA: I think that sovereign nations, obviously, have a right to protect themselves. Beyond that, I don't want to comment on the specific situation that's taking place in South Asia right now. I think it is important for us to let the investigators do their jobs and make a determination in terms of who was responsible for carrying out these heinous acts.

I can tell you that my administration will remain steadfast in support of India's efforts to catch the perpetrators of this terrible act and bring them to justice. And I expect that the world community will feel the same way.

I don't think this is what Obama intended to communicate, but here's how the Times of India is reporting it -- as if the president-elect had issued a "tacit endorsement" of India "bombing terrorist camps in Pakistan" under certain circumstances:

Sovereign nations have the right to protect themselves, US President-elect Barack Obama said on Monday, when asked if India could follow the same policy he advocated during his election campaign — of bombing terrorist camps in Pakistan if there was actionable evidence and Islamabad refused to act on it.

Although Obama said he did not want to comment on the specific situation involving India and Pakistan, his tacit endorsement of New Delhi adopting the same policy was circumscribed by two caveats: first, let the investigators reach definite conclusions about the Mumbai carnage, and second, see if Pakistan will follow through with its commitment to eliminate terrorism.

That's a bit of a stretch. Now, for the good news: Despite the palpable anger in India and word that India's security status has reached a "war level," no troops are moving to the border with Pakistan as they did after the attacks on the Indian Parliament in late 2001.


What does Jim Jones think about the world?

So far, the media profiles of Barack Obama's future national security advisor, James L. Jones, have revealed an intelligent and stoic, John Wayne-looking guy with a talent for navigating complex bureaucracies, but tell us very little about his actual views on major world issues.

So, who is this former Marine general who just snagged the top foreign-policy position in the White House? Jones's reputation as a critic of the Bush administration's foreign policy is based largely on reports he has authored on coalition progress in Afghanistan and the state of the Iraqi armed forces (pdf). While scathing, these reports focused on strategy rather than offering an overall position on the wisdom of the mission.

But the Jones pick has already rubbed some Israeli hardliners the wrong way. Jones has criticized Israeli security policies, and expressed support for a NATO peacekeeping force in the West Bank. The New Republic's Eli Lake sees Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton butting heads over Middle East policy. While there's certainly a difference in tone, I'm not sure there's enough evidence yet to suggest that "Jones-Clinton tensions may reprise the great Powell-Cheney fights of yore."

That seems to be the case with Jones's record in general. Over the last eight years, the general has demonstrated a willingness to express highly critical, sometimes politically incorrect assessments on U.S. policy, but has steered clear of big ideological debates. Jones's thin paper trail may worry partisans, but with Clinton, Joe Biden, Robert Gates, and Susan Rice on his team, Obama probably has enough big egos with well-defined worldviews to advise him on foreign policy. He may be looking for a towering presence who can call BS on wrongheaded recommendations when necessary, a task the 6'4" Jones seems more than qualified to carry out.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images