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.
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.
Advisers with no Clinton administration connection included Samantha Power, the Harvard human rights scholar who resigned from Obama’s team in March after suggesting Obama would readjust his Iraq withdrawal date after taking office; and Obama’s national security coordinator, Denis McDonough, a foreign-policy adviser to former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and a staunch advocate of the US taking a leadership role in global warming and energy issues.
But Obama appears to have shifted his foreign-policy outlook over recent months as he has expanded his advisory team to include high-profile Democrats and Republicans.
“The more interventionist advisers, like Susan Rice and that group, those people have really dropped off as prominent pragmatists have risen,” says Douglas Foyle, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Citing a meeting Obama held last week to showcase his foreign-policy and national security team, Mr. Foyle notes that former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar were featured prominently. “It was a striking show of the rise of the realists in the Obama camp,” he says.
During the primaries, Obama often mocked traditional foreign-policy experience while aides, including Ms. Rice, insisted foreign-policy experience comes in different forms, including living or studying abroad.
Hillary Clinton advisers involved
But as he secured the nomination – and, coincidentally or not, as he absorbed some of the top foreign-policy advisers of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign – Obama began to speak more in the vein of traditional realist American foreign policy.
In June, Obama announced a national security working group including former secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Lee Hamilton, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg.
Yet despite the grumblings of some Obama supporters who say those names suggest a Clinton foreign-policy redux, other observers say that’s unlikely to happen if for no other reason than that the world has changed. “It’s hard to see how the template of the Clinton years would fit. We’ve had 9/11 since then and have two wars going on,” says Hoover’s Mr. Henriksen.
Obama’s advisory pool also suggests that even an otherwise cautious foreign-policy vision would by tested by pressure for a more interventionist approach on high-profile humanitarian and human rights crises.
Both Rice and Mr. Lake – who has written “we were wrong” evaluations of the Rwanda response – have called for issuing the Sudanese government an ultimatum over what President Bush has called “genocide” in Sudan’s Darfur region: Either stop the violence or face US military intervention.
Citing the Clinton administration experience and the strength of human rights and other interest groups in the Democratic Party power base, Mr. Fullilove of the Brookings Institution says, “It’s a question out there as to whether it’s possible for any Democratic administration to be truly realist with a steady devotion to national interests, especially in the face of influential groups and party activists.”
But if Obama would face conflicting foreign-policy pressures, McCain’s apparent preference for the more idealist wing in his advisory trust suggests he may have already settled any conflicts.
When McCain described himself as a “realistic idealist” in a major foreign-
policy speech last March, the words were supplied by Robert Kagan, a proponent of a muscular US foreign policy that works more closely with allies of like values. Mr. Kagan is also one of the minds behind McCain’s proposal for a “League of Democracies” using moral authority of the world’s democracies in addressing international crises.
Other neoconservative forces on his team include his chief foreign-policy adviser Rany Scheunemann, a former Republican Senate aide who was a prominent early advocate of going to war to depose Saddam Hussein; and national security analyst Max Boot.
But McCain also turns to a list of prominent figures from the Republican pragmatist camp including Lawrence Eagleburger, Henry Kissinger, and former Navy secretary John Lehman. Also advising McCain are Sen. Lindsay Graham, who has won the respect of Senate Democrats; and Richard Williamson, a State Department veteran who has been Bush’s special envoy to Sudan.
McCain’s closeness to Senate independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman – whom he considered as his vice president pick before aides convinced him it would repel the Republican base – underscores a focus on the battle with Islamic extremism. Senator Lieberman would very likely be tapped for a high-level national security post in a McCain White House.
McCain cites years of experience
Some of McCain’s aides, like Kagan, have said they do not foresee an ideological struggle in a McCain administration on the order of what occurred in the Bush administration because McCain’s worldview is established after years of experience. Other analysts point out that McCain’s quick and indeed harsh judgment of Russia after its summer invasion of Georgia exemplifies the kind of decisionmaker he would be.
“McCain feels very confident with making foreign-policy calls on his own; he doesn’t feel he needs to rely on others a lot about what to do, and we saw that in his response to the Russia-Georgia conflict,” says Wesleyan’s Mr. Foyle.
Indeed, one reason the advisers the candidates choose is an important gauge is that they suggest the inclination that might prevail when the inevitable unexpected events strike. “People are a good indicator,” says Henriksen, “because one thing we can be sure of is that in office, the candidates will do something different from what they said they would.”