All the Democratic candidates pledge to withdraw troops if elected. The foreign policy differences between the three front-runners—Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama—boil down to how fast the drawdown will happen and how long the US will remain in the region afterward. The most effective means of distinguishing the three candidates from one another is by looking at their political histories.
Clinton is still battling the public perception that she “played it safe” on Iraq. Though the junior senator from New York opposed the Bush administration’s handling of the war, proposed legislation on troop reduction, and created a comprehensive plan for bringing stability after troop withdrawal, she first voted to authorize military action in 2002. To some voters, Clinton’s initial approval indicates a tendency towards political calculation over substance. A closer look at her policy portfolio, however, shows she may consistently support interventionism and unilateralism.
She has defended her authorization of war by comparing it to her husband’s decision to intervene in the Balkans and it has been suggested that the campaign in Kosovo was heavily influenced by the (then) First Lady’s insistence. Should Hillary be elected to the White House, her intimate involvement in Bill Clinton’s eight-year presidency might mean a policy continuum linking to his interventionism. More concerning is that Hillary has yet to call her Iraq vote a mistake.
Clinton’s October 2006 remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations typify just how difficult it is to predict her executive foreign policy. She suggests that US “foreign policy must blend both idealism and realism in the service of American interests”—it is this very combination of championing national interest and overarching values that has made voters question where Clinton’s presidential foreign policy might bring America in the next decade.
As John Kerry’s former running mate in 2004, John Edwards is no stranger to this early stage of the campaign. Currently out of government, Edwards has proposed an Iraq plan that would withdraw all combat troops over 12 to 18 months. Though the former US Senator voted in favor of the 2002 war resolution, he has since called the decision a mistake.
Edwards has made a number of strong public statements against Russia’s stilted progress towards liberal democracy, and at the Council on Foreign Relations led a Task Force report with former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp entitled “Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do.” General policy suggestions from Edwards point to the continuing sense of US global mission in Russia, which begs the question of how far Edwards is willing to go to promote democracy. He has called, for instance, for the “creation of a 10,000-member reserve corps to help stabilize troubled nations.” At the very least, his sense of American responsibility to the world could manifest as humanitarian engagement in Sudan and Uganda, which he visited in 2006 with the International Rescue Committee aid organization.
Obama’s foreign policy has been called “Clintonian” by The Economist. The reference relates primarily to his take on American moral leadership—a Clinton throwback indeed, but with an eye toward the very current mistakes in Iraq. Obama’s lengthy article in the recent edition of Foreign Affairs outlines how these principles apply to his campaign platform.
The current US Senator is the only front-runner in the Democratic primary field who was not in federal government during the lead-up to the war in Iraq. This outsider status let him speak to the concerns of his local constituency in the Illinois State Senate rather than to Washington political sphere. His strong opposition and unwavering criticism of the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq have added an element of consistency to his foreign policy that Clinton and Edwards do not have. Obama’s recommendations for phased troop withdrawal are consistent with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and his plan for regional stability involves close cooperation with regional leaders.
Senator Obama’s leadership in the securing, monitoring and destruction of nuclear weapons has been a focus of his time in the US Senate. Obama has worked closely with Republican Senator Richard Lugar in creating the Lugar-Obama nonproliferation initiative;, enacted this year. American troop withdrawal from Iraq does not detract from Obama’s message that America’s military must remain strong in order to be effective. He, like many of his democratic colleagues, has called for a restructuring of the US military and a continuing outward-looking approach to American policies.
Author’s note: Al Gore is currently getting higher numbers than Edwards in a number of public opinion polls. He was only excluded from the profiles because he has not publicly expressed interest in candidacy.
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