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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars | The Nation

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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars

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Like Clinton, Obama has more than 200 foreign policy advisers. The campaigns have been dueling over who has the best bench. (Many people who have been linked with Obama are actually advising Clinton, her advisers say.) Obama's advisers tend to be younger, more progressive--having opposed the war from the start--and more likely to stress "soft power" issues like human rights, global development and the dangers of failed states.

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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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The word Obama advisers use most often to describe Clinton is "conventional." As Brzezinski told me, "Look at her response on negotiations. It was conventional and politically convenient." He's referring to CNN's YouTube debate in July, when Obama said he'd meet with the leaders of countries like Cuba, Iran and North Korea without conditions. Clinton responded that she would not "be used for propaganda purposes" and later called Obama's statement "irresponsible and, frankly, naïve." The conventional wisdom was that Obama's answer displayed a stunning lack of presidential gravitas; Hillary dispatched her advisers to reinforce that point. But Obama unexpectedly turned the exchange to his advantage, accusing Clinton of "continuing with Bush/Cheney policies" and painting her as defender of an outdated status quo. "Her vote for the Iraq War and vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution are part of a go-along, conventional, momentary type of political thinking," Brzezinski says. Obama included these themes on the fifth anniversary of his 2002 speech opposing the war, assailing "the same old conventional thinking that got us into Iraq." After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, he reiterated the point in criticizing Clinton's Iraq War vote, saying that "by going into Iraq, we got distracted from Afghanistan...we got distracted from dealing with the Al Qaeda havens that have been created in northwestern Pakistan."

Today, advisers like Tony Lake point to a number of "significant differences" between Obama and Clinton. On Iraq, Obama not only opposed the war but has said he would withdraw all combat troops within sixteen months of taking office. On Iran, Obama rejected the Kyl-Lieberman resolution (though he missed the vote while campaigning) and has proposed a broader engagement strategy to lure Iran into the community of nations. On nuclear weapons, he has not only promised to reduce US nuclear stockpiles, as has Clinton, but advocates a world free of nuclear weapons. On Cuba, Obama went to Miami and said the ban on family travel and remittances to the island nation should be lifted, a policy Clinton opposes.

Yet on many issues the differences between Obama and Clinton are more stylistic than substantive--which doesn't necessarily make them less interesting. In the eyes of his advisers, Obama signals the future and Clinton, the past. "Many of the younger former Clinton Administration officials who now support Obama feel that perhaps it is time for the baton to be passed to the next generation--Obama's generation," says Susan Rice. This sentiment is echoed by the elder Obama advisers. "I think Mrs. Clinton will take us back to the self-indulgence of the 1990s," says Brzezinski, "when the country was preoccupied by its own well-being and the leadership preoccupied with its own standing, not recognizing or taking advantage of the world as it was changing." Much of Hillary's campaign has been premised on a restoration of the Bill Clinton era; the word "restore" appears repeatedly in a recent Foreign Affairs article she wrote outlining her policy.

General Clark says it's overly simplistic to suggest that Clinton would take the country "back to the future," to borrow a phrase Bill Clinton used. "No one's proposing we go back to the 1990s," Clark says. "We need to take what we learned from the 1990s and apply it to new challenges." Indeed, in discussions with Hillary's advisers these days, the message seems to be, We're more like Obama than you think! Both candidates favor negotiating directly with Iran, leaving behind a residual force in Iraq (though Obama has said his missions would be more limited); enlarging the military by 92,000 troops; aggressively curbing global warming; and recommitting to working with multilateral institutions like the United Nations. It's not hard to imagine Clark, Feinstein or even Holbrooke serving in an Obama administration. And many Obamaites would probably work in a Hillary Clinton administration.

One point of contention is the question of experience. Clinton's campaign says Obama "would have less experience than any President since World War II," with Bill Clinton recently implying on Charlie Rose that voting for Obama would be "rolling the dice." Obama says Clinton's trips around the world as First Lady were little more than photo-ops. "I don't think being First Lady gives you any foreign policy experience," cracks former Kennedy speechwriter and Obama supporter Ted Sorensen, "except which donors sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom."

Sorensen sees parallels between the youthful vigor and idealism of Obama and JFK. If Obama is Kennedy, I asked Sorensen, who's Clinton? "She's LBJ," he responded, "particularly when it comes to the future of Iraq. Mrs. Clinton is talking about leaving combat troops in Iraq, maybe even whole divisions. That's where LBJ got into trouble in Vietnam."

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