BEHIND OBAMA AND CLINTON
By Stephen Zunes
Foreign Policy in Focus
February 4, 2008
Voters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are rightly
disappointed by the similarity of the foreign policy positions of the two
remaining Democratic Party presidential candidates, Senator Hillary
Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. However, there are still some real
discernable differences to be taken into account. Indeed, given the power
the United States has in the world, even minimal differences in policies
can have a major difference in the lives of millions of people.
As a result, the kind of people the next president appoints to top
positions in national defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs is
critical. Such officials usually emerge from among a presidential
candidate's team of foreign policy advisors. So, analyzing who these two
finalists for the Democratic presidential nomination have brought in to
advise them on international affairs can be an important barometer for
determining what kind for foreign policies they would pursue as president.
For instance, in the case of the Bush administration, officials like
Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle played a major role in
the fateful decision to invade Iraq by convincing the president that
Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat and that American forces would be
treated as liberators.
The leading Republican candidates have surrounded themselves with people
likely to encourage the next president to follow down a similarly
disastrous path. But what about Senators Barack Obama and Hillary
Clinton? Who have they picked to help them deal with Iraq war and the
other immensely difficult foreign policy decisions that they'll be likely
to face as president?
Senator Clinton's foreign policy advisors tend to be veterans of President
Bill Clinton's administration, most notably former secretary of state
Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. Her
most influential advisor -- and her likely choice for Secretary of State
-- is Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke served in a number of key roles in her
husband's administration, including U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and member
of the cabinet, special emissary to the Balkans, assistant secretary of
state for European and Canadian affairs, and U.S. ambassador to Germany.
He also served as President Jimmy Carter's assistant secretary of state
for East Asia in propping up Marcos in the Philippines, supporting
Suharto's repression in East Timor, and backing the generals behind the
Kwangju massacre in South Korea.
Senator Barack Obama's foreign policy advisers, who on average tend to be
younger than those of the former first lady, include mainstream strategic
analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations, such as
former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake,
former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice, and former navy secretary
Richard Danzig. They have also included some of the more enlightened and
creative members of the Democratic Party establishment, such as Joseph
Cirincione and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and
former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. His team also includes the
noted human rights scholar and international law advocate Samantha Power
-- author of a recent New Yorker article on U.S. manipulation of the UN in
post-invasion Iraq -- and other liberal academics. Some of his advisors,
however, have particularly poor records on human rights and international
law, such as retired General Merrill McPeak, a backer of Indonesia's
occupation of East Timor, and Dennis Ross, a supporter of Israel's
occupation of the West Bank.
While some of Obama's key advisors, like Larry Korb, have expressed
concern at the enormous waste from excess military spending, Clinton's
advisors have been strong supporters of increased resources for the
While Obama advisors Susan Rice and Samantha Power have stressed the
importance of U.S. multilateral engagement, Albright allies herself with
the jingoism of the Bush administration, taking the attitude that "If we
have to use force, it is because we are America! We are the indispensable
nation. We stand tall, and we see further into the future."
While Susan Rice has emphasized how globalization has led to uneven
development that has contributed to destabilization and extremism and has
stressed the importance of bottom-up anti-poverty programs, Berger and
Albright have been outspoken supporters of globalization on the current
top-down neo-liberal lines.
Obama advisors like Joseph Cirincione have emphasized a policy toward Iraq
based on containment and engagement and have downplayed the supposed
threat from Iran. Clinton advisor Holbrooke, meanwhile, insists that "the
Iranians are an enormous threat to the United States," the country is "the
most pressing problem nation," and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
is like Hitler.
IRAQ AS KEY INDICATOR
Perhaps the most important difference between the two foreign policy teams
concerns Iraq. Given the similarities in the proposed Iraq policies of
Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, Obama's supporters have
emphasized that their candidate had the better judgment in opposing the
invasion beforehand. Indeed, in the critical months prior to the launch
of the war in 2003, Obama openly challenged the Bush administration's
exaggerated claims of an Iraqi threat and presciently warned that a war
would lead to an increase in Islamic extremism, terrorism, and regional
instability, as well as a decline in America's standing in the world.
Senator Clinton, meanwhile, was repeating as fact the administration's
false claims of an imminent Iraqi threat. She voted to authorize
President Bush to invade that oil-rich country at the time and
circumstances of his own choosing and confidently predicted success.
Despite this record and Clinton's refusal to apologize for her war
authorization vote, however, her supporters argue that it no longer
relevant and voters need to focus on the present and future.
Indeed, whatever choices the next president makes with regard to Iraq are
going to be problematic, and there are no clear answers at this point.
Yet one's position regarding the invasion of Iraq at that time says a lot
about how a future president would address such questions as the use of
force, international law, relations with allies, and the use of
As a result, it may be significant that Senator Clinton's foreign policy
advisors, many of whom are veterans of her husband's administration, were
virtually all strong supporters of President George W. Bush's call for a
U.S. invasion of Iraq. By contrast, almost every one of Senator Obama's
foreign policy team was opposed to a U.S. invasion.
During the lead-up to the war, Obama's advisors were suspicious of the
Bush administration's claims that Iraq somehow threatened U.S. national
security to the extent that it required a U.S. invasion and occupation of
that country. For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor
in the Carter administration, argued that public support for war "should
not be generated by fear-mongering or demagogy."
By contrast, Clinton's top advisor and her likely pick for secretary of
state, Richard Holbrooke, insisted that Iraq remained "a clear and present
danger at all times."
Brzezinski warned that the international community would view the invasion
of a country that was no threat to the United States as an illegitimate an
act of aggression. Noting that it would also threaten America's
leadership, Brzezinski said that "without a respected and legitimate
law-enforcer, global security could be in serious jeopardy." Holbrooke,
rejecting the broad international legal consensus against offensive wars,
insisted that it was perfectly legitimate for the United States to invade
Iraq and that the European governments and anti-war demonstrators who
objected "undoubtedly encouraged" Saddam Hussein.
Another key Obama advisor, Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment,
argued that the goal of containing the potential threat from Iraq had been
achieved, noting that "Saddam Hussein is effectively incarcerated and
under watch by a force that could respond immediately and devastatingly to
any aggression. Inside Iraq, the inspection teams preclude any
significant advance in WMD capabilities. The status quo is safe for the
Read the complete article at
Foreign Policy in Focus
February 4, 2008