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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars | The Nation

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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars

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At the Des Moines Register presidential debate in December, Barack Obama was asked how voters could expect him to provide a "break from the past" when many of his top foreign policy advisers were holdovers from the Clinton Administration. Obama gracefully parried the challenge by saying he was willing to take good advice from several previous administrations, not just Bill Clinton's. But the question did reflect a common suspicion that despite all his talk about providing "change," the Obama campaign's differences with Hillary Clinton on foreign policy may be more stylistic than substantive.

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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It's true that a number of Obama's key advisers--like former National Security Adviser Tony Lake, former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig--held prominent positions under Bill Clinton. At the same time, Obama's team includes some of the most forward-thinking members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment--like Joseph Cirincione and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, the party's leading experts on nonproliferation and defense issues, respectively, along with former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and Carter Administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Added to the mix are fresh faces who were at times critical of the Clinton Administration, like Harvard professor Samantha Power, author of "A Problem From Hell", a widely acclaimed history of US responses to genocide. These names suggest that Obama may be more open to challenging old Washington assumptions and crafting new approaches.

Hillary Clinton's camp, meanwhile, is filled with familiar faces from her husband's administration, like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Unlike Obama's advisers, the top Clintonites overwhelmingly supported the war in Iraq. From the march to war onward, Clinton and her advisers have dominated foreign policy discussions inside the Democratic Party. After largely supporting the war, they resisted calls for an exit strategy until 2005, when the situation had become unmanageably bleak. After turning against the war the Clintonites argued retroactively that Senator Clinton had voted, in Holbrooke's words, "to empower the President to avoid war."

As the nation hurtles from the January primaries to the "Super Tuesday" of February 5, top Democrats continue to develop their views on a number of foreign policy questions. How and when should America withdraw its troops from Iraq? How should we manage Iran? How should US power be deployed in the post-Bush era? How should foreign policy deal with global warming, the rise of China and India, an increasingly multipolar world and the continuing threat of nuclear proliferation? Perhaps it's too much to expect candidates to lay out a comprehensive vision for the new era in the heat of a presidential campaign. But how the campaigns address these questions today offers a window into how they'll govern tomorrow.

Hillary's campaign portrays its foreign policy team as a big tent. At the top are the troika of Albright, Holbrooke and former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. Albright is very close to Hillary and a key confidante and surrogate. Berger is a skilled behind-the-scenes operative who keeps the troops in line. More on Holbrooke in a moment. Close behind are policy figures who also play a political role, like retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who are popular with the party's antiwar base and appear on the campaign trail; Clark appears in the campaign's TV ads. (Clinton supporters who backed Bush's recent "surge" of troops in Iraq, like Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, are now kept at arm's length, although Clinton does consult with Gen. Jack Keane, an architect of the troop increase.) Following the old guard are a younger crop of less hawkish experts, like Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, who co-chairs an advisory group on terrorism, and Iran specialists Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr, who favor broad US engagement with Iran. At the center is Lee Feinstein, a former State Department official whom Clinton plucked from CFR in July and made the campaign's national security director. Feinstein wrote a controversial Foreign Affairs essay in 2004 with Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter arguing that in cases of humanitarian catastrophe, "the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough." Today Feinstein says, "Unilateral action that involves force ought to be avoided at all costs," and "a clear reading of my piece is a strong rebuttal of the Bush doctrine."

Of the top Clinton Administration staffers, Albright, who's 70 and has already served in the upper echelon of government, and Berger, who became a controversial figure after smuggling classified documents from the National Archives, are unlikely to return in a Hillary Clinton administration. That leaves Holbrooke, other than Bill himself, as the most commanding member of Hillary's foreign policy cabinet-in-exile. "He's the heaviest of the heavyweights," says Peter Galbraith, Bill Clinton's former ambassador to Croatia. Galbraith worked closely with Holbrooke in the Balkans and remains a close friend as well as a Hillary supporter. Holbrooke personifies the strong feelings those in the Democratic foreign policy community harbor toward the Clintons: they respect Holbrooke's experience, accomplishments and intelligence but are dismayed at his arrogance, political opportunism and hawkish posturing. Clinton insiders speculate that if Hillary assumes the presidency, Holbrooke could very well land the Secretary of State position he's always coveted.

Like Clinton, Holbrooke seems to have been groomed for higher office. He's been described by pundits as "the raging bull of US diplomacy," "the closest thing the party has to a Kissinger," "a man driven to be a central protagonist in the shaping of the American empire." Just look at his résumé: a young foreign service officer in Vietnam under the tutelage of JFK's best and brightest; Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia in the Carter Administration (where he controversially cultivated Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and supported Indonesia during its brutal occupation of East Timor); a successful Wall Street banker in the 1980s; the architect of the Dayton Accords, which ended the fighting in Bosnia; UN ambassador; the list goes on.

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