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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.

Holbrooke's brand of "muscular liberalism" has come to define Hillary. He helped shape not only Bill Clinton's but Hillary's views on the necessity of using force in Bosnia and consulted with her frequently about her vote on Iraq. "I know her well, I saw her through that period, I accept it 100 percent," he said in September. Indeed, in his last press conference as UN ambassador, Holbrooke called Saddam Hussein "a clear and present danger at all times" and said the incoming Bush Administration "will have to deal with this problem," reflecting the Clinton Administration's official policy of regime change. In the run-up to war, Holbrooke was quoted in the New York Times or Washington Post every week. He urged President Bush to go to the UN but afterward said Bush had "ample justification" to invade Iraq and wrote that antiwar demonstrators, along with the French and German governments, had "undoubtedly encouraged" Saddam. In the 2004 campaign, Holbrooke became a key foreign policy adviser to John Kerry. Like Hillary, Holbrooke took a particularly cautious tack on Iraq, telling Kerry to keep his views on the war "deliberately vague."

After the election, as figures like former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and Representative John Murtha turned against the war, Holbrooke refused to say how the United States should extricate itself from Iraq. "I'm not prepared to lay out a detailed policy or strategy," he said in December 2005, around the time that Clinton wrote a letter to her constituents defending her vote for the war. A year later, after events on the ground had spiraled even further out of control, Holbrooke, like Clinton, finally argued that the United States should "start to disengage from Iraq while pressing hard for a political settlement." He testified before Congress opposing Bush's troop surge and rebutted Gen. David Petraeus's presentation in support of it this past September, though he noted that, unlike Senate Democrats, he opposed using the Congressional power of the purse to end the war.

As Holbrooke found his footing on Iraq, however, he remained one of the leading hawks in Hillaryland on Iran. In 2004 he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "The Iranians are an enormous threat to the United States, the stability in the region, and to the state of Israel" and claimed the European Union would "never get their act together." Holbrooke has twice spoken at rallies against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York, comparing him to Hitler. At a November 27 speech in Toronto, Holbrooke listed the reasons the Bush Administration would not attack Iran but called the country "the most pressing problem nation" and "the most dangerous country in the region," accusing the Iranians of exporting explosives "that are killing Americans in Iraq."

Little Holbrooke said about Iran could have prepared one for the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which found that the country had abandoned its nuclear program in 2003 as a result of diplomatic pressure. "It significantly decreases the likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran," Holbrooke told me after the NIE became public. "You have to keep all options on the table, but I thought even pre-NIE that there was no justification for a military strike." He stressed, however, that America needed to remain vigilant about Iran. "It's good news that Iran is much, much further from a nuclear weapons capability," Holbrooke said. "But that doesn't change the fact that they are still a deeply destabilizing regime--supporting Hamas, Hezbollah. And they need to be part of the solution in Iraq."

Iran is a particularly sensitive topic among Clinton supporters. Her September vote for the Senate's Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which dubbed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq, aroused a furor among establishment Democrats and grassroots activists. Peter Galbraith, who knows the region well, circulated a statement in the Senate opposing the resolution. "The reason I was so opposed to Kyl-Lieberman was because it was based on the premise that Iran was undermining US efforts in Iraq, and that's just not true," Galbraith told me. Joe Wilson said he also opposed Kyl-Lieberman, primarily because "I don't trust Lieberman or Kyl."

General Clark, who commanded NATO under Bill Clinton, quickly defended Hillary's vote, writing in New Hampshire's Manchester Union-Leader that "she is forcing the Bush administration to apply diplomatic pressure." Clark told The Nation, "The people harping and carping on the vote and comparing it to her vote on Iraq are oversimplifying the complexities of real diplomacy." In an NPR debate following the NIE release, Clinton argued, based on what her advisers said the military had told them, that because of the Kyl-Lieberman vote, "we've seen changes in their behavior." As Iran heated up as a campaign issue, Clinton's advisers welcomed the NIE with a degree of relief. "It removes this as a campaign issue for Democrats," said Lee Feinstein. He noted that Clinton, like Obama, "supports direct negotiations with Iran, now."

Even if Iran is off the table, as Feinstein hopes, Iraq is not. How many troops Clinton would remove from Iraq--and how quickly--remains a source of contention in Democratic policy circles. "We have remaining vital national security interests in Iraq," Clinton told the New York Times in March. That includes, her advisers say, fighting Al Qaeda there, preventing Iranian arms from crossing the border, protecting the Kurds and possibly training Iraqi security forces, depending on their capabilities. Clinton has pledged to start withdrawing troops in her first sixty days in office but until recently refused to specify when most of them would come home and how many would stay behind. In a policy shift, she said on December 20 that "we can bring nearly everybody home, you know, certainly within a year." Feinstein said the remaining troops would engage in a much narrower set of missions, probably entailing "special operations reinforced with air power," which he says "is far different than patrolling a civil war." Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi army in 2003-04 and is advising Clinton, contradicted Feinstein, predicting that such a residual force "is going to be fairly big."

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.

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."

The top Democrat who puts the least emphasis on foreign affairs and has the fewest number of advisers, John Edwards, has paradoxically said some of the most interesting things during the campaign. Edwards has called the "war on terror" a "bumper sticker, not a plan," and has opposed enlarging the Army, citing the "little rationale given for exactly why we need this many troops." Days before the Iowa caucuses, he more sharply distinguished his position on Iraq from those of Clinton and Obama by calling for a near-total pullout of US forces within ten months. However, in foreign policy circles Edwards's knowledge of world affairs is considered thin, and on the stump he's far more passionate about domestic issues like poverty and trade. His main foreign policy adviser, Mike Signer, was an aide to former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, and his longtime national security adviser in the Senate, Derek Chollet, is a Holbrooke protégé and a fellow at the Center for New American Security, a centrist think tank working to align Democrats closer to the military. Both are relatively hawkish; Signer wrote an essay in 2006 calling for a doctrine of "exemplarism," which he labeled "a militarily strong and morally ambitious version of American exceptionalism."

The Clintonites like to view Iraq as an isolated incident. "It is absurd to hold her or any candidate to a litmus-test standard based on a single vote under extremely complicated circumstances," Holbrooke said in a September radio interview. "She has said herself, 'If people don't like that vote, let them go elsewhere.'" To Obama, the vote for the war reflects a more fundamental reflection of poor judgment and political cowardice. Edwards, who co-sponsored the war resolution, has apologized for it and said, "I will not make that mistake again."

Hillary, though, has refused to apologize, and has often been packaged as a "quasi-Margaret Thatcher," Brzezinski said. "She is probably more assertive and willing to use force than her husband," Holbrooke said. Holbrooke acknowledges that in the wake of the Iraq disaster, it will be harder to carry out the type of humanitarian interventions that defined the Clinton Administration. In the case of Darfur, for example, none of the candidates have suggested sending US forces. "The standard will be higher," Holbrooke said. "The tests of an exit strategy will be higher. The risks will be higher." In the 1990s Holbrooke warned of "Vietnamalia syndrome," the aversion to using military power because of failures in Vietnam and Somalia, and says we cannot retreat now, either. "A swing from neoconservatism to neo-isolationism would not be a good deal."

None of the Democratic candidates, of course, are advocating "neo-isolationism." But Obama has been more willing than Clinton to redefine what it means to be "tough" and to rethink the nature of American power, suggesting that the United States act with greater humility. He told the New York Times, "For most of our history our crises have come from using force when we shouldn't, not by failing to use force."

Statements like these raise the question of what a post-Bush foreign policy should look like. The next President must decide: will the "war on terror" continue? What about the Bush doctrine of preventive war or the escalating size of the military budget? Holbrooke says, "The next President needs to scrap a lot of things from the Bush Administration, and torture, Guantánamo and pre-emptive war should be on that list." Wesley Clark, too, says the concept of a "war on terror" was a "terrible mistake," and he calls the Bush doctrine "nonsense, rubbish." On these points Obama and Edwards concur.

But there are other crucial and less frequently mentioned topics to address: how will the next administration deal with a resurgent Russia, a rising China and a Latin America that has rejected the Washington/IMF neoliberal agenda, forging closer regional ties in its place? How will the United States handle rapidly growing world demand for oil and gas as reserves approach their peak? Is it a mistake to view the world primarily through the lens of Islamic extremism? How should the United States relate to Saudi Arabia and other autocratic Gulf states, and how should the United States address the Israel-Palestine conflict? How should we promote prosperity and stability in Africa? The foreign policy advisers in each Democratic campaign are still grappling with the answers.

The disastrous Bush presidency has upended many assumptions in DC policy circles, particularly about America's place in the world. This historic shift is helping to define the race for the Democratic nomination. All the candidates have sought to separate themselves from the Bush Administration--but rejection of the Bush/Cheney approach will not be enough to formulate a strategy for the next administration. As Obama has said, "The question is, What comes next?"

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