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August 03, 2007

Obama v. Clinton?

I tend to think Kevin's wrong that there aren't actual differences between Obama and Clinton on foreign policy. It's entirely true that their statements, if read for meaning rather than tone, don't reveal much in the way of daylight between their positions on negotiating with foreign leaders. But that's because they're both looking to win the same primary, from largely the same pool of voters, with largely the same set of opinions.

Beneath all that, it's pretty clear that they have fairly fundamental disagreements. Their positions on the Iraq War, for instance, are very different. Obama believes we shouldn't have gone in. Even if there were weapons. Clinton believes we were wrong about the weapons, but that she did, at the time, vote correctly on sending us to war. So she believes the war was fundamentally right, while he believes it was fundamentally wrong.

Or take their advisors. Obama's crew is fairly progressive: Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Tony Lake, etc. Hillary Clinton's close advisors are...less so. Richard Holbrooke, Mark Penn, and others are charter -- and largely unreconstructed -- members of the liberal hawks caucus.

Or take the grounds of their disputes. Clinton keeps going at Obama for sounding too soft and dovish. Obama keeps going at her for sounding too hawkish and bellicose. Clinton clearly believes liberalism should remain muscular and a bit hawkish. Obama, less so. This sort of rhetoric does have a substantive impact, and the degree to which the nominee (and president!) believes the public is fundamentally hawkish or dovish will hugely impact which policies they decide or feel forced, to pursue.

Point being, the differences are real. They're just not in the rhetoric. So far as I can tell, these have been a weird series of arguments in which Obama and Clinton are arguing over things they actually disagree about, but they keep framing their language in such a way that a close read makes it look like they actually don't disagree. If you're not paying attention, you'd get a fairly accurate impression of where they stand. If you do pay attention, you're getting too-carefully parsed statements that suggest there's less difference than there is. In this case, a little knowledge may be a dangerous thing...

August 3, 2007 | Permalink


Clinton believes we were wrong about the weapons, but that she did, at the time, vote correctly on sending us to war. So she believes the war was fundamentally right

What's the basis for that claim? Maybe you don't mean what you appear to say. My impression is that she believes it was a big mistake. She says things that imply that, at least. She may believe her vote was fundamentally right under the circumstances.

Clinton clearly believes liberalism should remain muscular and a bit hawkish. Obama, less so.

That's plainly true if you substitute "she" for "liberalism." She probably also believes what you say. Obama is doing his share of seeming hawkish lately.

I'm sure there are important differences between all three leading candidates, but you may be overdrawing them here.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 3, 2007 2:58:34 PM

She's been very clear on Iraq. Look at any of her answers on the apology stuff. She's aways explained that she thought, given the info she had, that she voted correctly. IN other words, this war, as conceived, was just. It just happened to be the case that the intel was wrong.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 3, 2007 3:04:35 PM


The basis for the claim is that when expressing regret for her vote to authorize, she's said specifically that she believed it was the right vote to give the President that power, but she regrets the way the President used it. When justifying the vote to authorize in the first place, she used the same justification: the Senate ought to defer to the President on the matter. That is, she thinks she was right because she thinks the Senate should've abdicated that responsibility. So...yeah. Michael Crowley had a great piece on this in The New Republic, awhile back, subscription required. If you'd like I can dig it up and find a link.

Posted by: MRL | Aug 3, 2007 3:07:09 PM

Ah yes, and the fact that it was the bad intel too. That is, if the intel was right, the vote would've been right. Forgot to mention that.

Posted by: MRL | Aug 3, 2007 3:08:05 PM

I think you're right. And even more than you know. Having lived in a third world country, having a father who was Muslim, having grown up half in the Black community and half in the White community, Obama can see things that a white bread American can't see.
And you can't tell me that, as the rest of the world looks at us and sees that we've elected someone who knows the world, intimately, it will not improve our image abroad. What a profound change from GWB.
From the beginning I have thought that Obama had an advantage that no other candidate had in foreign policy. It isn't his weakness, it's his strength. He will understand the real fact of the cruel, oppressive use of power in the third world. He will not have to reflect at all to know when we're shooting our foot. And he will know the right things to say. We have NEVER had a candidate with this kind of foreign policy advantage.

Posted by: Paula | Aug 3, 2007 3:20:34 PM

Differences? Samatha Power lays them out:


August 3, 2007
To: Interested Parties
From: Samantha Power -- Founding Executive Director, Harvard University Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Re: Conventional Washington versus the Change We Need

It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced, and even naïve.

Barack Obama defied conventional wisdom and opposed invading Iraq. He did so at a time when some told him that doing so would doom his political future. He took that risk because he thought it essential that the United States “finish the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda.” He warned that a “dumb war, a rash war” in Iraq would result in an “occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”

Barack Obama was right; the conventional wisdom was wrong. And today, we see the consequences. Iraq is in chaos. According to the National Intelligence Estimate, the threat to our homeland from terrorist groups is “persistent and evolving.” Al-Qaeda has a safe-haven in Pakistan. Iran has only grown stronger and bolder. The American people are less safe because of a rash war.

Over the last few weeks, Barack Obama has once again taken positions that challenge Washington’s conventional wisdom on foreign policy. And once again, pundits and politicians have leveled charges that are now bankrupt of credibility and devoid of the new ideas that the American people desperately want.

On each point in the last few weeks, Barack Obama has called for a break from a broken way of doing things. On each point, he has brought fresh strategic thinking and common sense that break with the very conventional wisdom that has led us into Iraq.

Diplomacy: For years, conventional wisdom in Washington has said that the United States cannot talk to its adversaries because it would reward them. Here is the result:

--The United States has not talked directly to Iran at a high level, and they have continued to build their nuclear weapons program, wreak havoc in Iraq, and support terror.
--The United States has not talked directly to Syria at a high level, and they have continued to meddle in Lebanon and support terror.
-- The United States did not talk to North Korea for years, and they were able to produce enough material for 6 to 8 more nuclear bombs.

By any measure, not talking has not worked. Conventional wisdom would have us continue this policy; Barack Obama would turn the page. He knows that not talking has made us look weak and stubborn in the world; that skillful diplomacy can drive wedges between your adversaries; that the only way to know your enemy is to take his measure; and that tough talk is of little use if you’re not willing to do it directly to your adversary. Barack Obama is not afraid of losing a PR battle to a dictator – he’s ready to tell them what they don’t want to hear because that’s how tough, smart diplomacy works, and that’s how American leaders have scored some of the greatest strategic successes in US history.

Barack Obama’s judgment is right; the conventional wisdom is wrong. We need a new era of tough, principled and engaged American diplomacy to deal with 21st century challenges.

Terrorist Sanctuaries: For years, we have given President Musharraf hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, while deferring to his cautious judgment on how to take out high-level al Qaeda targets – including, most likely, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Here is the result:

-- Bin Laden and Zawahiri – two men with direct responsibility for 9/11– remain at large.
-- Al Qaeda has trained and deployed hundreds of fighters worldwide from its sanctuary in northwest Pakistan.
-- Afghanistan is far less secure because the Taliban can strike across the border, and then return to safety in Pakistan.

By any measure, this strategy has not worked. Conventional wisdom would have us defer to Musharraf in perpetuity. Barack Obama wants to turn the page. If Musharraf is willing to go after the terrorists and stop the Taliban from using Pakistan as a base of operations, Obama would give him all of the support he needs. But Obama made clear that as President, if he had actionable intelligence about the whereabouts of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan – and the Pakistanis continued to refuse to act against terrorists known to be behind attacks on American civilians – then he will use highly targeted force to do so.

Barack Obama’s judgment is right; the conventional wisdom is wrong. We need a new era that moves beyond the conventional wisdom that has brought us over-reliance on an unreliable dictator in Pakistan and an occupation of Iraq.

Nuclear Attacks on Terrorist Targets: For years, Washington’s conventional wisdom has held that candidates for President are judged not by their wisdom, but rather by their adherence to hackneyed rhetoric that make little sense beyond the Beltway. When asked whether he would use nuclear weapons to take out terrorist targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Barack Obama gave the sensible answer that nuclear force was not necessary, and would kill too many civilians. Conventional wisdom held this up as a sign of inexperience. But if experience leads you to make gratuitous threats about nuclear use – inflaming fears at home and abroad, and signaling nuclear powers and nuclear aspirants that using nuclear weapons is acceptable behavior, it is experience that should not be relied upon.

Barack Obama’s judgment is right. Conventional wisdom is wrong. It is wrong to propose that we would drop nuclear bombs on terrorist training camps in Pakistan, potentially killing tens of thousands of people and sending America’s prestige in the world to a level that not even George Bush could take it. We should judge presidential candidates on their judgment and their plans, not on their ability to recite platitudes.

Vision: American foreign policy is broken. It has been broken by people who supported the Iraq War, opposed talking to our adversaries, failed to finish the job with al Qaeda, and alienated the world with our belligerence. Yet conventional wisdom holds that people whose experience includes taking these positions are held up as examples of what America needs in times of trouble.

Barack Obama says we have to turn the page. We cannot afford any more of this kind of bankrupt conventional wisdom. He has laid out a foreign policy that is bold, clear, principled, and tailored for the 21st century. End a war we should never have fought, concentrate our resources against terrorists who threaten America. End the counter-productive policy of lumping together our adversaries and avoiding talking to our foes. End the era of politics that is all sound-bites and no substance, and offer the American people the change that they need.

Barack Obama’s judgment is right. It is conventional wisdom that has to change.

Posted by: cms | Aug 3, 2007 3:27:19 PM

Hillary's vote on the AUMF would have been the correct one were it not a foregone conclusion that the President was determined to go to war. Someone defending that vote would be completely correct to say, "Look, the policy worked. After Congress passed the bill, Saddam backed down and let the weapons inspectors back in." However, I am not aware of a single member of Congress who voted for the AUMF and then, in early March 2003, was critical of the President's rush to war.

I think it's important to remember that threatening to go to war was a success. The part that was utter stupidity was still going to war after the threats had achieved our aims. Still, since it was obvious even in October 2002 that Bush was going to war no matter what Saddam did, I think it gets pretty hard to justify the vote for authorizing force. You get into this whole counterfactual thing: "Well, it would have been the right vote if we had a good president."

Posted by: dbeach | Aug 3, 2007 3:33:52 PM

I'm kinda with Sanpete on this - the distinctions Ezra draws in the post are almost ironically humorous - if the biggest difference on Iraq is that they disagree over what happened in 2003... I'm not sure I see the difference. Both want to leave. Both want it to make sense for us and for the Iraqis (which means, not right away). Arguing over events in 2003 won't get us much of anywhere, since, well, they've already happened, and can't be undone. And, as I say to anyone who floats this line, its lovely that Obama says he'd have made a vote he wasn't in a position to make; it just doesn't prove very much.

Likewise, that "soft and dovish vs. bellicose and hawkish" is almost meaningless - he's certainly taken the hawkish route on Pakistan, and she's awfully measured for someone seen as bellicose. And continually, despite the name-calling back and forth (itself seeming to be more theater than any actual hard feelings) of the past couple of weeks, the disagreements over who's too soft or too hard amount to... not very much.

Are there differences? I suppose; but in the end compared to the Republican, they seem more alike than not, and the comparison to the Republican, in the end, is the comparison that will matter. I tend to disagree with Paula only in that whoever we get come January 2009, the one thing that seems clear is that no one - certainly no one reasonably sentient - is advocating continuing the disastrous foreign policy blunders of George W Bush (even, among the sane ones, with the Republicans). If the differences were more substantive between Clinton and Obama, I think we'd be seeing, oddly, less of this back and forth; you wouldn't need it if the distinctions were more blatantly obvious. And I also think it's why I, and others, find ourselves hanging back before committing to one particular Democrat. If I ask myself who will be better on Iraq, Iran, terrorism and the like, I tend to think, "any of them will be better than what we have now, and none seems especially off course or differing widely from one another on the key issues." That may change... but I don't think we've seen it yet.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 3, 2007 3:42:42 PM

One has to read Obama's statements on Pakistan as almost meaningless (which is probably correct) to make the Hawk vs Dove case. Also, my understanding is that they are both for residual forces in Iraq.

Posted by: AJ | Aug 3, 2007 3:48:54 PM


You seem to be making a very gross generalization that "Obama understands the world" based on his father being muslim and him living abroad as a child.

I hardly think living in another country for a few years a long long time ago gives him the edge in foreign policy. Furthermore, its not like its "the foreign masses" who make foreign policy decesions. It's well educated,relatively, mainstream politicians that make decisions. Many of which went to school in the US.

Most importantly the tie that binds the leaders of all countries together is that they are politicians. And it's more important to be able to speak politician to them than it is to have went to kindergarden in their country.

Posted by: Phil | Aug 3, 2007 4:00:32 PM

Before 9/11 and Iraq Samantha Powers could safely be called a hawkish neo-liberal. Her greatest contribution has been to point out our failures to prevent genocides and supports using our military more often in these cases. Unfortunately, a bunch of neo-liberals turned out to be unthinking pro-war types and gave bad name to other neo-liberals.

Clinton is trying to frame everything in the hawk vs dove frame, Obama is trying to avoid that frame and focus on intelligent use of power. I've heard the term 'owl' used to describe distinction but, unfortunately, the term hasn't stuck.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 3, 2007 4:33:10 PM

Arguing over events in 2003 won't get us much of anywhere, since, well, they've already happened, and can't be undone.

If it's not fair to judge people by the decisions they made 4 years ago, are we supposed to judge them only on the basis of what they say, or what?

Posted by: KCinDC | Aug 3, 2007 4:36:45 PM

She's aways explained that she thought, given the info she had, that she voted correctly. IN other words, this war, as conceived, was just.

Yes, "as conceived." And, as you say, that's an importance difference with Obama, who gets points from me for it (if somewhat provisionally, for the reasons weboy points out). If he were as realistic now in other foreign policy points I'd be ecstatic.

That is, she thinks she was right because she thinks the Senate should've abdicated that responsibility.

That doesn't follow from what she said. Deferring to the President was a factor among others, and not an inappropriate one to give some weight to. (As you point out, she has also appealed to the intelligence failures.)

I think it's important to remember that threatening to go to war was a success.

Interesting point, but as I recall Hussein was still not complying completely, which gave Bush the pretext he needed.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 3, 2007 4:59:11 PM

The problem with all of this is that it turns on whether anyone seriously believed Bush during the vote? The problem with that is that we all know that no one did. I mean- let's put the cards on the table politically speaking- at the time before the build up- Karl Rove put out a memo that was the talk of the town about how the GOP could win the mid terms by using Iraq as a wedge issue. You don't think that was on everyone's mind? The vote, even by the guy I am supporting Edwards, was politics from the start. All else that's followed is just spin. The only reason why I am giving Edwards a break is that he admitted to his fuck up (although he still pretends he didn't fully understand it) and Obama hasn't been much better since being in office on the subject of Iraq. If HRC were capable of it- she would admit her mistake and move on without trying to parse it.

Posted by: akaison | Aug 3, 2007 7:46:56 PM

I'm not as cynical as you are, akaison, but I do agree that politics helped turn their heads on this. I think that's still true, that as the polls shifted against the war the Democratic leaders found it easy to see reasons to change their posittions and favor withdrawal.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 3, 2007 8:02:46 PM

Hillary feels obliged to contort her limbs into the posture of Serious Foreign Policy. Obama doesn't.

And you can't tell me that, as the rest of the world looks at us and sees that we've elected someone who knows the world, intimately, it will not improve our image abroad.

And yet it looks so unattractive to Serious Types, and worse still, can be shaped into a media narrative of 'naive and weenie'. Obama and his advisors are at least honest enough to look at the US's position and realise that the politics of snit and high-explosive temper-tantrum really aren't a good seller. At the same time, you have 'Bomb Iran', 'Double Gitmo' and 'I Eat Terrorists! 9/11!' on the other side, and I fear that rhetoric hits the American lizard brain harder.

I hardly think living in another country for a few years a long long time ago gives him the edge in foreign policy.

I don't think you need to tie it to biography, except to suggest that there's a generational distinction between Obama (b. 1961) from Hillary (b. 1947). When Hillary was in her mid-twenties, the US was in the final years Vietnam; when Obama was the same age, Reagan and Gorbachev were meeting in Europe.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 3, 2007 8:06:11 PM

here are the links -this isn't cynacism. it's what was happening at the time. cynical would imply that it wasn't happening or that this wasn't chiefly on their mind. even edwards supporters have mentioned this was part of his thinking in so many words. the idea that it wasn't clinton given who she is as a politician goes beyond being incredible into pure fantasy. even to this day she's worried about the politics to the point of insanely saying that given what she knows she wouldn't have changed her vote or some crap like this. this comment by her has shades of bush about it. the unwavering leader. until of course one remembers the only good line out of kerry in 2004- you can be certain and wrong. anyway- the links;




Posted by: akaison | Aug 3, 2007 8:10:16 PM

Hillary feels obliged to contort her limbs into the posture of Serious Foreign Policy. Obama doesn't.

I don't think this requires contortion, but maybe it's one reason she leads in the polls and Obama doesn't. In fact Obama feels the same obligation; he just hasn't done it as well yet.

Akaison, I don't question the facts you mentioned, only your interpretation that the Democrats supporting the War did so only for political reasons. I think it was more complex then and still is now, but I agree politics is an important driver.

given what she knows she wouldn't have changed her vote or some crap like this

I think she said something more like the opposite.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 3, 2007 8:42:40 PM

here's a link where she says she refuses earlier this year to characterize her vote as a mistake:


Posted by: akaison | Aug 3, 2007 8:50:25 PM

I've seen the chain of events as follows. Obama stakes out a specific position. Hillary criticizes that position as naive/inexperienced/irresponsible/whatever, then goes to give a vague non-position that doesn't endorse Obama's position or rule it out.

Some people read that and say, "wow not much difference there."

Other people say, "well, she's criticizing Barack's position, doesn't give her own, so I can only assume she doesn't agree"

Hard to say for sure, since, well, she doesn't really give her position. She won't rule promise meeting with foreign heads of state; she won't rule it out. She probably won't use nukes, but she won't rule them out. She's committed to joint action with the Pakistani gov't in Waziristan, but if we had intelligence about high-level targets, she'd "ensure" their capture.

None of those are positive statements about positions. They're dodges. If you think she's basically a progressive, you'll read progressive positions into them. If you think she's a hawk, you'll read hawkish positions into them. The fact, IMO, that she isn't committed to meeting with foreign heads of state and is at least skeptical of diplomacy is inherently approaching the matter from a hawkish position, regardless of whether or not the overall policy is the same. Same thing with the nukes. Chances are, she wouldn't use nukes. For many reasons, but most obviously, because using nukes would be absolutely retarded. But the fact that she's willing to leave that option on the table is pretty much inherently hawkish. There is no deterrent value to leaving it on the table. It would be a stupid move. Its just a pander to right-wingers. Just like "propaganda purposes" when talking about diplomacy is dog-whistle politics for right-wingers.

So I see her non-answers, and I see hawk. I see Obama's answers, and I see not-hawk-not-dove, but "owl" or "considered dove" or "measured hawk" or whatever. Basically, iconoclastic. But not standard, run-of-the-mill Washington hawk.

That seems to be a big difference to me. The set of assumptions from which the two candidates operate appear (to me) to be fundamentally different. And its those assumptions that Obama is running against (as the memo makes so very clear).

Posted by: MRL | Aug 3, 2007 9:57:20 PM

The fact that at this point in time Sanpete can say "but as I recall Hussein was still not complying completely" is a testament to the power of lies to crowd out the truth. UN inspectors were there. Remember Hans Blix, Mohammed El Baradei? There was no non-compliance but there was a plethora of lies and innuendo. The one thing that episode revealed was that Bush is an inveterate liar, to give him any benefit of the doubt is utterly foolish.

Posted by: no relation to paris hilton | Aug 3, 2007 10:30:44 PM

MRL. I wish I could join you in seeing Obama as more owlish, and I think he may become that way, but his response at the debate really did seem naive to me, while Clinton gave a sound answer (no meetings without preconditions).

No relation, I believe that Hussein interfered with inspections and refused to allow them in some locales in a timely way. These reports came from the inspectors, not from Bush. But you can set me straight, if you think otherwise.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 3, 2007 10:55:00 PM

I just don't get how Hillary's non-answer is seen as any type of answer, let alone a sound one. It was like someone asked her if she was willing to swimming, and she answered, "I'm not gonna promise to go swimming. I promise I'll put on a bathing suit. I promise I'll get a towel. I promise I"ll walk out to the pool. I will even stick my toe in and see if the temperature is nice. But I will not promise to go swimming. And my bathing suit is really really nice, so, if I go swimming, I have to make sure I don't wet. So I may go swimming--I won't promise to--but only if I don't get wet."


I mean...it sounds very serious and considered, sure. But look at what she said. its gobbly-di-gook. Its nothing. It was a complete non-statement. She was asked about, in effect, summitry and preconditions, and gave us no indication on what she thinks about either issue. And if you really read into, maybe you can see a position in there...which is one that is far too hawkish for my taste.

Somehow people think that level of obfuscation is Presidential or Serious or whatever. I don't get it.

Posted by: MRL | Aug 3, 2007 11:04:30 PM

Sanpete, why do you persist in saying the inspections were interfered with? I assume you can use google as well as I. Hans Blix was been consistent in his opinion, he wrote an entire book on the subject but here is just one quote "I think it's clear that in March, when the invasion took place, the evidence that had been brought forward was rapidly falling apart." You even state that the claim of non-compliance was just used as a "pretext" so, in effect, we are quibbling whether the pretext was real or not. The overlying fact is that Bush and his administration lied continually about WMD, but yet you want to believe that the pretext was real, apparently with no facts to back it up, just your recollection, a recollection manufactured and magnified by the administration and the media. Believe what you want, but I believe that you are being utterly foolish.

Posted by: no relation to paris hilton | Aug 3, 2007 11:32:19 PM

MRL, Clinton's wasn't entirely a non-answer. First, she won't have a top-level summit without preconditions, while Obama claims he will (something I rather doubt). She had already said her administration will deal directly with the states in question, so the only difference between Obama and Clinton is over whether there should be summits without preconditions. I think she's right, and he's wrong (you can see my reasons here and here.

No relation, I think you have mistaken my view, and why I said what I did. I persist in saying what I recall because I'm pretty sure it's true. I agree completely with your quote from Blix, but it doesn't say anything about whether some inspections were obstructed. I pointed out what I did because the AUMF wasn't entirely the success that dbeach said it was. That is, it got the inspectors back in, which was good, but it didn't get full cooperation, which unfortunately was enough pretext for Bush to go to war. Mixed success, that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 4, 2007 12:10:57 AM

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