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For Democrats, Failing Grades on Iraq

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- 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 that opposes a tougher defense posture or a more muscular foreign policy in a still very dangerous world.

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.

Obama harbors even more dovish national-security views, and he seems to cringe at the use of force in the pursuit of U.S. foreign-policy 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," Obama said on his campaign Web site.

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


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 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 presidential summits," O'Hanlon told me.

"You don't want a president using his time 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."

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

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


Obama's advisers include former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake; Susan Rice, an assistant secretary of state in Clinton's second term; and Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

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

Writing last month in The Nation magazine, foreign-affairs analyst Ari Berman said there is a widely shared "suspicion that despite all his talk about providing 'change,' the Obama campaign's differences with Clinton on foreign policy may be more stylistic than substantive."

They seem to be joined at the hip on getting out of Iraq as soon as possible, and that bothers O'Hanlon, a Clinton supporter, who has been a leading Democratic advocate 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's pulled her along," he said.

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

At the end of her position paper on "Ending the War in Iraq," Clinton said 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 Obama's position paper, in which he promises "I will end the war in Iraq," he said, "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."

Which 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," O'Hanlon said. "They both are advocating a policy that, unless significantly modified, would lead to a reversal of all our military progress in 2007."

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

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