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Splitting Hairs on Foreign Policy

Author: Toni Johnson
February 20, 2008

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The Democratic presidential nominating contest between Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) couldn't be closer. Neither, at first glimpse, could their foreign policy positions. Take Iraq. Although Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq war and Obama opposed it from the outset (prior to joining the Senate), both have pledged to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops within the first few months of their administrations. Clinton would leave residual forces inside the country to protect U.S. interests and root out terrorists (Foreign Affairs) and so would Obama. Neither Obama nor Clinton has specified the number of troops to be left behind in Iraq. The Illinois senator would escalate military operations in Afghanistan (Foreign Affairs), as would Clinton. Both would also ratchet up diplomacy on ending Iran's nuclear program. On the globalization front, both promise to end corporate subsidies they believe reward corporations for sending jobs abroad.

In making deeper comparisons, it often comes down to the details, such as the precise timeframe for a complete Iraq withdrawal, or who would conduct diplomacy with Iran and under what conditions. In a rare clear-cut foreign policy disagreement, Clinton would maintain the forty-six-year-old Cuba embargo while Obama would aim for normalizing relations. The two camps have also recently sought to draw distinctions on trade policy. Obama charged that Clinton praised the North American Free Trade Agreement, while the Clinton camp charges that Obama blocked an attempt to strengthen laws that protect against unfair trade practices. Such differences aside, the two Democrats still present a clear counterpoint to some of the foreign policy views of Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who supports the Bush administration's Iraq surge strategy and free trade agenda.

Analysts try to draw comparisons between Clinton and Obama by examining their foreign policy advisers. Stephen Zunes, an international affairs professor at the University of San Francisco, says understanding the foreign policy potential (FPIF) of the Democratic front-runners comes down to who's giving them advice (WashPost) on global affairs, especially the Iraq war. Clinton has assembled an elite group of policy advisers including many foreign policy heavyweights from her husband's administration. Obama also has managed to attract some ex-Clinton advisers as well as newcomers like human rights expert Samantha Power.

Some analysts said they expect Clinton's foreign policy to be a repeat of her husband's administration. An article in the Nation characterizes Clinton's advisers as more conventional and hawkish while depicting Obama's overall as "younger, more progressive," and more likely to emphasize "soft power." Susan Rice, a former Clinton official at the State Department who advises Obama, said 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." But Clinton's advisers repeatedly stress her foreign policy experience as more substantive, pointing to her moves in 2007 challenging the Pentagon (WashPost) to spell out its planning of the war. In a campaign dispute (BosGlobe) late last year, Obama pointed out his support from former Clinton administration advisers. "They apparently believe that my vision of foreign policy is better suited for the 21st century," Obama said. Clinton responded: "I'm not holding myself out by leaning on advisers."

Newsweek International's Fareed Zakaria says Clinton has laid claims to years of experience, many of the party's "blue-chip foreign policy advisers," and the ear of her husband, President Bill Clinton. But he also asserts that Obama's experience is one of identity, including having an immigrant father and growing up in Indonesia. In Zakaria's view, Obama's innate perspective on understanding foreign peoples is just as meaningful as Clinton's practical knowledge. But some are critical of attempts to equate identity with traditional experience in foreign policy. One such critic, Princeton University's Sean Wilentz, writes that "after seven disastrous years of the Bush experience, otherwise rational editorialists and commentators are insisting that instincts basically are good enough." It remains unclear, though, how much importance voters are attaching to such distinctions.

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