In their focus on the electoral horse-race, the media have ignored a key difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- the positions of their foreign policy advisors on the Iraq war. As political scientist Stephen Zunes points out in Foreign Policy in Focus, Clinton's key advisors overwhelmingly supported it, while Obama's opposed it. The differences in their positions on whether to go to war mirror those of the two candidates. They also give a sense of how Clinton and Obama are likely to deal with the immensely difficult foreign policy challenges they'll face if elected, including dealing with Iraq.
Zunes's article, revised and shortened for HuffPo:
The president makes the decisions, but who advises the president? We know Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle insisted to Bush that American forces would be treated as liberators if we went into Iraq. McCain has surrounded himself with people likely to encourage him to follow a similar disastrous path if he becomes president. But what about Obama and Clinton?
A major difference stands out among those they are likely to appoint to key posts in national defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs: Almost everyone in Senator Obama's foreign policy team opposed the U.S. invasion. By contrast, most of Senator Clinton's foreign policy team, which largely comprises veterans of her husband's administration, strongly supported George W. Bush's call for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
It should come as no surprise that during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Obama spoke at a Chicago anti-war rally while Clinton went as far as falsely claiming that Iraq was actively supporting al-Qaeda. And during the recent State of the Union address, when Bush proclaimed that the Iraqi surge was working, Clinton stood and cheered while Obama remained seated and silent.
Clinton's advisors are similarly confident in the ability of the United States to impose its will through force. This is reflected to this day in the strong support for President Bush's troop surge among such Clinton advisors (and original invasion advocates) as Jack Keane, Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon.
Clinton's top foreign policy advisor -- and her likely pick for Secretary of State -- Richard Holbrooke, insisted that Iraq remained "a clear and present danger at all times." He rejected the broad international legal consensus against such offensive wars and insisted European governments and anti-war demonstrators who opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq "undoubtedly encouraged" Saddam Hussein.
Clinton advisor Sandy Berger, who served as her husband's national security advisor, insisted that "even a contained Saddam" was "harmful to stability and to positive change in the region" and insisted on the necessity of "regime change." Other top Clinton advisors -- such as former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- confidently predicted that American military power could easily suppress any opposition to a U.S. takeover of Iraq.
By contrast, during the lead-up to the war, Obama's advisors recognized as highly suspect the Bush administration's claims regarding Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" and offensive delivery systems capable of threatening U.S. national security.
Now advising Obama, former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, argued that public support for war "should not be generated by fear-mongering or demagogy." Brzezinski seems to have learned from mistakes like arming the Mujahideen. He warned that invading a country that was no threat to the United States would threaten America's global leadership because most of the international community would see it as an illegitimate act of aggression.
Another key Obama advisor, the Carnegie Endowment's Joseph Cirincione, argued that the goal of containing the potential threat from Iraq had been achieved as a result of sanctions, the return of inspectors, and a multinational force stationed in the region serving as a deterrent. Meanwhile, other future Obama advisors -- such as Susan Rice, Larry Korb, Samantha Power, and Richard Clarke -- raised concerns about the human and material costs of invading and occupying a large Middle Eastern country and the risks of American forces becoming embroiled in post-invasion chaos and a lengthy counter-insurgency war.
These differences in the key circles of foreign policy specialists surrounding these two candidates are consistent with their diametrically opposing views in the lead-up to the war, with Clinton voting to let President Bush invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his choosing, while Obama was speaking out to oppose a U.S. invasion.
Hillary Clinton has a few advisors who did oppose the war, like Wesley Clark, but taken together, the kinds of key people she's surrounded herself with supports the likelihood that her administration, like Bush's, would be more likely to embrace exaggerated and alarmist reports regarding potential national security threats, to ignore international law and the advice of allies, and to launch offensive wars.
By contrast, as The Nation magazine noted, a Barack Obama administration would be more likely to examine the actual evidence of potential threats before reacting, to work more closely with America's allies to maintain peace and security, to respect the country's international legal obligations, and to use military force only as a last resort.
In terms of Iran, for instance, Cirincione has downplayed the supposed threat, while Clinton advisor Holbrooke 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. This is consistent with Clinton's vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that opened the door to a potential Bush attack on Iran, and with Obama's opposition to it.
Given the problems exemplified by the tragic legacy of the current administration, primary voters should recognize that Obama's promise of change is the most prudent course in these dangerous times.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco.