- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008


There has been little debate about national security and foreign policy issues between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama beyond who would pull our troops out faster from Iraq.

This may be mostly by design because both have been pandering to their party’s left-wing, antiwar base which opposes a tougher defense posture or a more muscular foreign policy in a still very dangerous world.

Hillary Clinton has been pulled, pushed and dragged from her earlier position in opposition to a troop withdrawal timetable to her latest position that all combat troops will be out of Iraq within a year. This undoubtedly elicited cheers from al Qaeda in Iraq and their friends in Pakistan and Iran.

Barack Obama harbors even more dovish national security views that seem to cringe at the use of force in the pursuit of U.S. national security objectives. For him, it is all about personal, hands-on diplomacy, economic development, foreign aid and sitting down with adversaries and enemies to work out our differences together.

“For most of our history, our crises have come from using force when we shouldn’t, not by failing to use force,” he told the New York Times.

“The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don’t like. Not talking doesn’t make us look tough; it makes us look arrogant,” Mr. Obama says on his Web site.

Thus, in one of few foreign policy exchanges in their debates, Mr. Obama said he would personally engage in unconditional negotiations with the dangerous despots who rule North Korea and Iran.

Mrs. Clinton appropriately called his foreign policy approach “naive and irresponsible.” She would deal with leaders of rogue nations through midlevel envoys to see if high level meetings should be considered, but she wasn’t going to let them use us for “propaganda purposes.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a Democratic defense and national security adviser at the Brookings Institution, also finds Mr. Obama’s approach dangerous and sophomoric. The freshman senator’s eagerness for one-on-one talks with tin pot dictators “would cheapen the value of a presidential summits,” Mr. O’Hanlon told me.

“You don’t want a president using his time by being lied to by foreign leaders. Hillary would be much more pragmatic. She has suggested midlevel talks with Iran, for example,” he said. “Obama would look weak and Hillary would not look weak,” he said.

Elsewhere, however, it is hard to find many areas where they disagree on their approach to foreign policy or national security issues. The reason could be that their advisers are largely made up of people from Bill Clinton’s administration.

Hillary’s team includes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and former National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, who was caught red-handed, stealing classified Clinton documents from the National Archives.

Mr. Obama’s advisers include former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake; Susan Rice, an assistant secretary of state in Mr. Clinton’s second term; and Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brezezinski.

Drawing advisers from the same administration feeds the impression that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama will in most cases follow similar policies.

Writing last month in the Nation magazine, foreign affairs analyst Ari Berman said there was a widely shared “suspicion that despite all his talk about providing ‘change,’ the Obama campaign’s differences with Hillary Clinton on foreign policy may be more stylistic than substantive.”

On Iraq, they seem to be joined at the hip on getting out as soon as possible and that bothers Mr. O’Hanlon, a Clinton supporter, who has been a leading Democratic supporter of the military surge there.

“I’m troubled about what they both say about Iraq. He’s the one who wants to get out very fast, unconditionally, and to some extent, he has pulled her along,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

But both candidates have little-noticed caveats on their withdrawal plans that they rarely if ever talk about on the campaign stump, but that bear more notice by their antiwar supporters.

The end of Mrs. Clinton’s position paper on “Ending The War In Iraq” says: “She would devote the resources we need to fight terrorism and will order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region,” including Iraq. At the end of Mr. Obama’s position paper, in which he promises “I will end the war in Iraq,” he says: “If al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda.”

This begs the question: How long do you think it will take al Qaeda to re-establish bases throughout the country once we’re out?” You get one guess.

“If you add up all of their differences, they both fail on Iraq. They both are advocating a policy that unless significantly modified would lead to a reversal of all our military progress in 2007,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

The American people may have a different position on this issue when they go to the polls to vote Nov. 4.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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