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Who will help shape McCain, Obama foreign policy?

Both candidates would likely draw from previous administrations to build their teams.

By Staff writer / October 29, 2008

Sen. McCain lends an ear to some of the original neoconservative backers of the Iraq war, but his team also includes realists and internationalists of the George H.W. Bush tradition.

Carolyn Kaster/AP



After initially relying on some outside-the-box foreign-policy advisers, Barack Obama has surrounded himself with many well-known and longtime world-affairs practitioners. That suggests to some critics that his would be an orthodox foreign policy largely in the President Clinton mold – with an interventionist streak in times of humanitarian crisis.

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John McCain lends an ear to some of the original neoconservative backers of the war in Iraq, but his team also includes Republican realists and internationalists of the George H.W. Bush tradition. That split between American idealism and pragmatism is raising questions about whether the bifurcated foreign policy of the outgoing President Bush might continue in a McCain White House.

When it comes to defining the foreign policy each would practice, the two candidates have given speeches and answered debate questions indicating where they might go. But the foreign-policy brain trusts assembled by each offer another set of clues as to how American diplomacy and power might be employed under two very different men.

“The split in the advisers to McCain attests to the somewhat bipolar nature of his world vision, this tension you sense in him between a realistic sense of the limits of American power and then the strains of idealism,” says Michael Fullilove at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“In Obama most of the names associated with him reflect above all a cautious approach to foreign policy after what are widely seen as the excesses of the Bush presidency,” he adds. “But one question mark would be how much he would ultimately be influenced by other voices emphasizing priorities like human rights and humanitarian intervention.”

Others say the size of each candidate’s circle of foreign-policy advisers and the variety within it is a reflection of two different levels of experience and approaches to decisionmaking.

“McCain’s spectrum would be different, he would rely on his own experiences and instincts more,” says Thomas Henriksen at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. “Obama would be more deliberative – he’d want to listen to people, even a lot of different people, before he did anything.”

Obama draws on former official

Senator Obama has assembled a foreign-policy and national security team incorporating dozens of specialists, former State Department and Pentagon officials, and members of Congress. But the length of the list and many of the prominent names on it suggest a broad and exhaustive consultative process for foreign-policy making. Some critics see a cautious approach to the world and ultimately an orthodox Democratic foreign policy.

Among Obama’s close advisers are Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of State for African affairs; Gregory Craig, a former State official who was President Clinton’s impeachment lawyer; former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake; and former Navy secretary Richard Danzig – all of whom served in the Clinton administration.