Why Obama Matters, And Clinton is Old News

The New York Times Magazine looks at Barack Obama and foreign policy. Here’s the key portion:

The United States has had only one foreign policy and one national-security strategy since the transforming events of 9/11 — and this set of doctrines has been shaped by the very distinctive worldview of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the men and women around them. The great project of the foreign-policy world in the last few years has been to think through a “post-post-9/11 strategy,” in the words of the Princeton Project on National Security, a study that brought together many of the foreign-policy thinkers of both parties. Such a strategy, the experts concluded, must, like “a Swiss Army knife,” offer different tools for different situations, rather than only the sharp edge of a blade; must pay close attention to “how others may perceive us differently than we perceive ourselves, no matter how good our intentions”; must recognize that other nations may legitimately care more about their neighbors or their access to resources than about terrorism; and must be “grounded in hope, not fear.” A post-post-9/11 strategy must harness the forces of globalization while honestly addressing the growing “perception of unfairness” around the world; must actively promote, not just democracy, but “a world of liberty under law”; and must renew multilateral instruments like the United Nations.

In mainstream foreign-policy circles, Barack Obama is seen as the true bearer of this vision. “There are maybe 200 people on the Democratic side who think about foreign policy for a living,” as one such figure, himself unaffiliated with a campaign, estimates. “The vast majority have thrown in their lot with Obama.” Hillary Clinton’s inner circle consists of the senior-most figures from her husband’s second term in office — the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the former national security adviser Sandy Berger and the former United Nations ambassador Richard Holbrooke. But drill down into one of Washington’s foreign-policy hives, whether the Carnegie Endowment or the Brookings Institution or Georgetown University, and you’re bound to hit Obama supporters. Most of them served in the Clinton administration, too, and thus might be expected to support Hillary Clinton. But many of these younger and generally more liberal figures have decamped to Obama. And they are ardent. As Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council official under President Clinton who now heads up a team advising Obama on nonproliferation issues, puts it, “There’s a feeling that this is a guy who’s going to help us transform the way America deals with the world.” Ex-Clintonites in Obama’s inner circle also include the president’s former lawyer, Greg Craig, and Richard Danzig, his Navy secretary.

On foreign policy the election is about the old establishment ways of looking at foreign policy versus those who are thinking about what the United States should be doing in the 21st century. The election is over who gets the big picture, not nonsense issues such as who signed what letter on Iran.

The first test of 21st century foreign policy was handling the response to 9/11. The Republicans failed that miserably, and the Democrats were primarily on the side lines. Iraq was the next question. The Republicans failed again, while Obama got it right. Clinton also failed on that one, as did Edwards. (Sorry Johnny, understand the big picture means never having to say you’re sorry. Your apology doesn’t cut it. The point isn’t simply understanding in retrospect that the war was a mistake but in having a framework for foreign policy which would lead you on the correct path from the start.) I’m not certain yet who I’d support if I also consider the long shots, but of the three supposed front runners, Obama is the only one I’d consider.

The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats now have basically the same position on the war. When differences are discussed it generally comes down to how many troops each candidate will leave and for how long. These are not the issues by which we should judge the candidates. The situation on the ground may be quite different by January 2009 and these mild differences in opinion will be irrelevant by then. What matters is whether a president understands the world we are living in, and whether he has the judgment to make decisions on war and peace. This judgment, and not simply, the late realization that this particular war was a mistake, separates those who are qualified to be president and those who continue to adhere to ideas of the past.

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