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Who Has Their Ear? Telling Clues To Future Foreign Policy Choices Found In Advisers To Clinton and Obama

Months before the war in Iraq began, the battle within the Democratic foreign policy establishment was engaged.

In late 2002 and throughout 2003, at such think-tanks as the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, many eminent scholars, policy intellectuals and politicians out of power lined up for and against Bush's war plans.

On one side were a number who opposed the war -- among them Zbigniew Brzezinski, Ivo Daalder, Susan Rice, and Lawrence Korb -- all of whom called for a broader, multinational coalition, intensified weapons inspections and expanded diplomacy.

"Ultimately, the Bush revolution [in foreign policy] is bound to fail, because its core premise -- that America's security rested on an America unbound -- is deeply mistaken," wrote Daalder, former director for European Affairs on President Clinton's National Security Council staff, in an October 28, 2003 essay. "Far from demonstrating the triumph of unilateral American power, Bush's wars have demonstrated the importance of basing American foreign policy on a blend of power and cooperation."

On the other side of the Democratic divide were the early backers of the drive to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein, including Richard Holbrooke, Sandy Berger and Martin Indyk.

On December 19, 2002, three months before the Iraq war was launched, Indyk, former Assistant Secretary of State and ambassador to Israel, together with Brookings scholar Kenneth M. Pollack wrote an essay titled "Lock and Load" for the Los Angeles Times:

"Hussein has just made it clear again that the only way to effectively disarm his regime is to overthrow it. That leaves the president with a choice between war sooner and war later. Indefinite inspections will only make the inevitable more difficult."

On the surface, these divisions have been largely resolved, with a growing consensus among members of the Democratic Party's foreign affairs elite that the Iraq war is a disaster of major proportions.

But the original split on the war has profoundly shaped the current contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The well-publicized contrast between Hillary Clinton's early backing of the Bush administration's war effort and Barack Obama's early opposition, has to a degree been replicated in the less visible network of foreign policy advisers that each candidate has cultivated -- the early war opponents by Obama, and the one-time hawks by Clinton.

The differing histories of the candidates on Iraq, reinforced by the parallel commitments of their advisers, suggests - but does not guarantee - that Clinton and Obama would, if elected, adopt substantially dissimilar approaches to international relations and to national security threats. If the past and the advisers are a guide, then Clinton would be expected to adopt a tougher line, and would be likely to threaten, and perhaps use, force more readily than Obama.

Clinton has lined up a foreign policy team dominated by those who shared her early support for the war in Iraq, but then, like her, changed their minds.

Holbrooke, Bill Clinton's UN Ambassador -- and a possible Secretary of State in a Hillary Clinton administration -- was, for example, an outspoken backer of the war in the days leading up to the conflict.

"Now it's time to use an approach that builds on the fact that Saddam is the most dangerous government leader in the world today, he poses a threat to the region, he could pose a larger threat if he got weapons of mass destruction deployed, and we have a legitimate right to take action," Holbrooke told Chris Matthews on January 23, 2003, two months before troops opened fire. "The American public always supports its commander-in-chief and we unify in times of crisis, and if the action is fast and rapid and successful, afterwards everyone will think they supported it."

Just seven months later, on August 26, 2003, Holbrooke's views had changed radically: Iraq, in his view, had become the "worst foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam War."

Not all the members of Clinton's foreign policy team were pro-war in the lead-up to the conflict. Nor were all of Obama's advisers down-the-line anti-war.

Daalder, by his own account, opposed the invasion before it began, and again almost immediately after it commenced. But, on the day the US attack started he joined 24 other scholars and analysts in signing a statement -- which he now regrets -- that declared:

"Although some of us have disagreed with the administration's handling of Iraq policy and others of us have agreed with it, we all join in supporting the military intervention in Iraq. The aim of UNSC Resolution 1441 was to give the Iraqi government a 'final opportunity' to comply with all UN resolutions going back 12 years. The Iraqi government has demonstrably not complied. It is now time to act to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime from power."

Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of State now advising Hillary Clinton, was, in turn, among the war critics. In a March 17, 2003, NewsHour interview she argued, with some prescience, that Vice President Cheney "seems to have wanted this action against Iraq from the very beginning, and that there have been around him a group of people who wanted to go to war against Iraq in the worst way. And my sense now is we are doing it in the worst way....[T]he timing of it, kind of an elective war, preemptive action, a serious attack on the United Nations, generally questions about where the institutional structure of the post World War II world is coming to -- are all questions that I think need to be considered, and that are issues that show the inevitable, the avoidable consequences, consequences that will come from this."

Most of Clinton's advisers, however, in the early days of the war confined themselves to procedural questions or voiced tactical doubts rather than substantive and strategic criticism -- primarily calling on the administration to recruit support from a broader array of allies. Sandy Berger, National Security Adviser to President Clinton, was not atypical:

"The urgency of this really changes when you link Saddam Hussein and terrorism," Berger told Chris Matthews on February 13, 2003. "I think after 9/11, the risk of not acting tends to be seen as more compelling than the risk of acting.... If we come in with a multilateral face, I think we are more likely to be seen as liberators not only in the first month, but in the 12th month and in the 16th month when we're still going to be there. That's really the test of whether we're seen as liberators or occupiers."
Over the past five years, most of Clinton's advisers have followed the same path as she has from war supporter to war critic.

"Iraq already presents us with the worst situation internationally in modern American history. Worse even than Vietnam," Holbrooke told a Washington audience on May 10, 2007, noting that he served in Saigon and worked on Vietnam in Washington and at the Paris peace talks.

"I never thought I would say anything was worse than Vietnam but Iraq, my friends, is worse than Vietnam," he added, qualifying his disagreement with the administration by voicing hope that the current U.S. offensive would succeed, but adding that the chances of this "are not high."

Obama's most prominent foreign policy advisers are less circumspect: Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985, said in an August 29 interview with the Associated Press, "It is essential that the military begin planning for a phased withdrawal from Iraq now so it can be safely completed within 10 to 12 months."

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