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.
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.