The Foreign Policy Agenda of the Democratic Front-Runners: Comparisons on Some Key Issues

Voters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are rightly disappointed regarding the similarity in the foreign policy positions of the three remaining candidates - Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, and former Senator John Edwards - with a realistic shot at the Democratic Party presidential nomination. However, there are still some real discernable differences to be taken into account. Indeed, given the power the United States has in the world, even minimal differences in policies can have a major difference in the lives of millions of people.

Foreign Policy Advisors

Much understanding of what kind of foreign policy a potential president might have is by examining who is providing them which their information and advice on international affairs.

Senator Clinton's foreign policy advisors tend to be veterans of President Bill Clinton's administration, most notably former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. Virtually all were strong supporters of the invasion of Iraq and some - such as Jack Keane, Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon - also supported President Bush's "surge." Her team also includes some centrist opponents of the war, however, including retired General Wesley Clark and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Her most influential advisor - and her likely choice for Secretary of State - is Richard Holbrooke, who prior to the invasion of Iraq insisted that that country posed "a clear and present danger at all times," insisted that Bush had "ample justification" to invade Iraq, and has written that those who protested against the war and foreign governments which opposed the invasion "undoubtedly encouraged" Saddam Hussein. Holbrooke has been severely criticized for his role as Carter's assistant secretary of state for East Asia in propping up Marcos in the Philippines and supporting Suharto's repression in East Timor, as well as his culpability in the Kwangju massacre in South Korea.

There is every reason to suspect that Hillary Clinton as president would pursue a foreign policy very similar to that of her husband.

Senator John Edwards has a significantly smaller foreign policy team than his two major rivals, reflecting his stronger emphasis on domestic issues. Though arguably the most liberal of the three on economic policies and related matters, this is not reflected in whom Edwards has chosen to be his top foreign policy advisors: Mike Signer, a longtime national security adviser to Virginia senator Mark Warner, has advocated a policy of "exemplarism," which he describes as "a militarily strong and morally ambitious version of American exceptionalism." His other leading foreign policy advisor is Derek Chollet, a hawkish analyst who serves as a fellow at the Center for New American Security, a center-right think tank with close ties to the Pentagon.

Senator Barack Obama's foreign policy advisers include mainstream strategic analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations, such as former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake, former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. They have also included some of the more enlightened and creative members of the Democratic Party establishment, such as Joseph Cirincione and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. His team also includes the noted human rights scholar and international law advocate Samantha Power - author of the recent New Yorker article on U.S. manipulation of the United Nations in post-invasion Iraq - and other liberal academics. Some of his advisors, however, have particularly poor records on human rights and international law, such as retired General Merrill McPeak, a backer of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, and Dennis Ross, a supporter of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

In contrast with Clinton's foreign policy advisers, virtually all of Obama's advisers opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. The Nation magazine noted that members of Obama's foreign policy team, who also tend to be younger than those of the former first lady, are "more likely to stress 'soft power' issues like human rights, global development and the dangers of failed states." As a result, "Obama may be more open to challenging old Washington assumptions and crafting new approaches."


Both Clinton and Edwards were outspoken supporters of President George W. Bush's request for Senate authorization to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing and were among the minority of Congressional Democrats to vote in favor of such authorization. Edwards was one of only six Democratic co-sponsors of the Senate resolution. Both Clinton and Edwards falsely claimed, despite the lack of any credible evidence, that Iraq had a dangerous arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, a nuclear weapons program, and sophisticated offensive delivery systems. Clinton went as far as falsely claiming that Iraq was actively supporting al-Qaeda. Both rejected the United States' legal obligation to uphold the United Nations Charter's prohibition against aggressive war.

Even after the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq and the Bush administration acknowledged the absence of Iraqi WMDs and ties to Al-Qaeda, Clinton and Edwards continued to defend their support for the American conquest of that oil-rich country. Soon after he left the Senate in 2005, Edwards reversed his stance and formally apologized for his vote and his initial support for the war. Clinton, however, has refused to apologize to this day.

Obama, by contrast, opposed the war - even speaking at an anti-war rally in Chicago four months prior to the invasion - and argued that Iraq was not a threat to the United States or its neighbors.

Once he became a senator in 2005, however, Obama joined Clinton in supporting unconditional funding for the war, though he eventually began calling for a timetable for a withdrawal American troops, a position opposed by Clinton until last year. Both Obama and Clinton voted for the first time against Bush's war funding proposal this past May and have continued to vote against unconditional funding subsequently.

The three candidates' current positions on Iraq are markedly similar, all promising to begin withdrawing some troops immediately upon coming to office, but none promising to have all troops out by the end of their first term in 2013.

Based on the respective plans for Iraq they have put forward, however, Edwards and Obama are more likely to get more troops out sooner than would Clinton, who argues for a U.S. "military as well as political mission" in Iraq for the indefinite future for such purposes as countering Iranian influence, protecting the Kurdish minority, preventing a failed state, and supporting the Iraqi military. She also calls for a "continuing mission against al-Qaeda in Iraq" along with the obligation "to protect our civilian employees [and] our embassy." Since most estimates of the numbers of troops needed to carry out these tasks range between 40,000 and 75,000, the best that can be hoped for under a Hillary Clinton presidency is that she would withdraw only about one-half to two-thirds of American combat forces within a couple years of her assuming office. Edwards has called for an immediate reduction of forces and a complete withdrawal of combat troops within a year. However, he has called on maintaining sufficient military forces in Baghdad to protect the sprawling U.S. embassy complex as well American personnel elsewhere in that country. He has also called for sufficient U.S. military presence, perhaps in neighboring Kuwait, to "prevent genocide, a regional spillover of the civil war, or the establishment of an al Qaeda safe haven" as well as "a significant military presence in the Persian Gulf."

Obama argues that U.S. troops may need to maintain a "reduced but active presence," to "protect logistical supply points" and "American enclaves like the Green Zone" as well as "act as rapid reaction forces to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists," but has pledged to withdraw combat troops within 16 months. Obama recognizes the need to "make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq" and has increasingly emphasized that most U.S. troops that remain in the area should be "over the horizon," such as in Kuwait, rather than in Iraq itself. He has called for diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives to address some of the underlying issues driving the ongoing conflicts and has also pledged to launch "a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker an end of the civil war in Iraq, prevent its spread, and limit the suffering of the Iraqi people."


Both Clinton and Edwards argued, up until last year, that the Bush administration had not been tough enough against Iran. Clinton insisted several months ago that the White House "lost critical time in dealing with Iran," accusing the administration of choosing to "downplay the threats and to outsource the negotiations" as well as "standing on the sidelines." Similarly, Edwards told an Israeli audience last year that "the U.S. hasn't done enough to deal with what I have seen as a threat from Iran. As my country stayed on the sidelines, these problems got worse. To a large extent, the U.S. abdicated its responsibility to the Europeans. This was a mistake." Both Clinton and Edwards falsely accused Iran last year of having an active nuclear weapons program, demonstrating that neither had learned their lesson from naively believing the Bush administration's false accusations regarding Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program five years earlier.

More recently, however, Clinton and Edwards have joined Obama in criticizing the Bush administration's threats of precipitous military strikes against Iran. Despite this, all three have refused to rule out as president taking unilateral U.S. military action against that country to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Clinton voted in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment targeting Iran, which called for the United States to declare the largest branch of Iran's armed services to be a terrorist organization, which many interpreted as providing the Bush administration with a rationale for going to war. Her vote has been harshly criticized by both Edwards and Obama.

Meanwhile, Clinton has harshly criticized Obama for his calls for direct negotiations with Iran on areas of mutual concern, calling such diplomatic initiatives "naive."

Israel and Its Neighbors:

All three candidates have defended Israel's ongoing repression against the Palestinians and Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon, as well as insisting that the onus of responsibility for the failure of the peace process lies with the Palestinians under occupation rather than the Israeli occupiers. Both Clinton and Edwards have defended Israel's settlement policy and the construction of a separation barrier deep inside the West Bank. Clinton has been the most outspoken of the three in supporting Israel's right- wing government and its violations of international humanitarian law and has gone as far as insisting Palestinian violence is not in reaction to the Israeli occupation, but simply a result of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda.

Edwards and Obama have been less visible in their support for Israeli policies than Clinton, and Obama has been somewhat more nuanced in his wording, such as also mentioning Israeli responsibilities in moving the peace process forward. In addition, Obama took a notably more moderate position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until a couple years ago, then allying more with the Israeli peace movement, but has swung well to the right, taking positions similar to Edwards and Clinton, since seeking national office.

Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan and Pakistan:

All three candidates support the war in Afghanistan, with both Clinton and Edwards joining other senators in voting in favor of authorizing military action against that country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. All three call for an escalation in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, though Edwards stresses the use of Special Forces for targeted commando strikes rather than simply increasing bombing and traditional combat units.

All three stress the need for applying diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan for greater cooperation on counter-terrorism issues and have threatened bombings and incursions into Pakistan to root out al-Qaeda cells.

On broader counter-terrorism issues, Edwards and Obama have emphasized improved intelligence and greater international cooperation as well as preventative measures, with Obama in particular calling for a vigorous policy to prevent the emergence of "failed states" and supporting dramatically-increased funding for sustainable development and education in areas prone to influence by radical Islamist ideologies.

Nuclear Weapons

All three candidates stress the importance of taking ballistic missiles off of their current hair-trigger alert status, lessening U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, opposing the Bush administration's efforts to build a new generation of nuclear delivery systems and supporting a comprehensive test ban treaty. Clinton and Obama have criticized aspects of the Bush administration's missile defense program, but support the continued development of missile defense capabilities.

Obama and Edwards have called for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. Edwards takes the strongest position on non-proliferation as a result of his opposition to nuclear power, but all three candidates maintain the Bush administration's double-standards, such as threatening Iran over simply the prospects of developing nuclear weapons while not opposing the already-existing nuclear arsenals of allies like India, Pakistan and Israel. Obama and Edwards have pledged to work vigorously to better secure the world's nuclear weapons materials and to negotiate with Russia and other nuclear powers for a dramatic reduction in nuclear stockpiles.

While Clinton has emphasized military means of deterring additional countries from developing nuclear weapons, Obama has emphasized U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to take serious steps towards disarmament, arguing, "As we do this, we'll be in a better position to lead the world in enforcing the rules of the road if we firmly abide by those rules. It's time to stop giving countries like Iran and North Korea an excuse."

Human Rights

Both Clinton and Edwards voted for a 2002 amendment that prohibits the United States from cooperating in any way with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its prosecution of individuals responsible for serious crimes against humanity, restricts U.S. foreign aid to countries that support the ICC and authorizes the president of the United States to use military force to free individuals from the United States or allied countries detained by the ICC. Edwards has since reversed his position and now supports the United States joining the ICC while Clinton and Obama are open to eventual ratification if their alleged concerns regarding liability of U.S. armed services personnel are addressed.

All three candidates have displayed a tendency to exaggerate human rights abuses by regimes and movements opposed by the United States while minimizing human rights abuses by pro-U.S. regimes. Clinton has gone as far as sponsoring Senate resolutions explicitly contradicting findings of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups when they are critical of the policies of some U.S. allies.

Edwards has called for more aggressive international action against mass killings in places like Darfur and Uganda, though - as with Clinton and Obama - his record regarding repression by U.S.-backed regimes is decidedly mixed, with all three having supported as senators unconditional military aid to a number of governments engaged in human rights abuses. Edwards has called for dramatic increases in spending for development programs aimed at the world's poor, particularly in health care and education, as well as for an expansion of support for microcredit programs.

Obama has been quite critical of U.S. support for dictatorial regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and has called for greater pressure on these governments to improve human rights, clean up corruption and support greater equality and social justice. Recognizing that, despite the rhetoric, the Bush administration has "done little to advance democracy around the world," Obama has promised to "focus on achieving concrete outcomes that will advance democracy." While calling for increased U.S. government financial support for independent institutions supporting pro-democracy movements abroad, he recognizes that "direct financial assistance from the U.S. government will not always be welcome or beneficial." He has also called for increased support - through foreign aid, debt relief, technical assistance and investment - for countries undergoing post-conflict and post-authoritarian transitions.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.

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