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Clinton Finds Obama Plan to Negotiate Wins Votes Soured on Bush

By Indira Lakshmanan
January 8, 2008

Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Barack Obama vows to "talk to all nations, friend and foe." Hillary Clinton promises to end "the era of cowboy diplomacy."

Both candidates say they would repair alliances around the world, gradually bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, and support a Palestinian state in exchange for guarantees for Israel. From Russia to China to Darfur, from promoting human rights to getting better terms for trade, Obama and Clinton agree on the broad goals and missions of U.S. foreign policy.

Yet their records and rhetoric show a philosophical divide that separates the two would-be presidents: Clinton would likely be swifter to use U.S. force, and Obama more willing to talk to rogue leaders.

As the two Democratic front-runners battle it out in New Hampshire today, the politics of their foreign-policy disagreements often revert to clichés -- one is prescient, the other poll-driven, or one is naïve, the other world-wise. The clash in their worldviews, however, is real.

Obama, a first-term Illinois senator, is "much more open to searching and exploring common ground," said Greg Craig, a senior foreign-policy adviser who served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton, he said, "embodies the more conventional approach of the foreign-policy community: don't recognize, don't talk to your adversaries."

'Rhetoric'

Hillary Clinton's national security director, Lee Feinstein, dismissed the criticism, saying her refusal to talk to enemies without preconditions makes her a realist, not a hawk. "There is a big difference between being ready and rhetoric," he said.

Clinton, 60, has consistently shown that she would be willing to use force or the threat of force as a foreign-policy tool. The two-term New York senator voted in 2002 to give President George W. Bush authority to wage war against Iraq. As first lady, she urged her husband to bomb Belgrade to avoid a "major holocaust of our time" in the Balkans, biographer Gail Sheehy wrote in her 2000 book, "Hillary's Choice."

In a debate of Democratic candidates in Manchester, New Hampshire on Jan. 5, Clinton compared her stance against terrorism to the Cold War-era deterrence doctrine. "Every state in the world must know we will retaliate," she said.

Iraq Vote

The Iraq measure has been an enduring source of controversy for Clinton during this campaign. She was a forceful advocate for that vote five years ago, though she now insists that the measure was intended to give weapons inspectors more time, and that Bush misused his authority.

By contrast, Obama, 46, has made his consistent opposition to the Iraq invasion a central pitch of his campaign, citing an antiwar speech he made in 2002. Critics, including Clinton, note that he was in the Illinois senate at the time, and it was easy for him to take a stand when he didn't have to vote in Washington.

Since Obama joined the U.S. Senate in 2005, he and Clinton have both voted for funding the war -- and, most recently, against funding -- as well as for timetables for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

They have parted ways over Clinton's September vote in support of a non-binding Senate resolution that urged the administration to "structure its military presence in Iraq" to counter the threat posed by Iran. Obama has characterized that vote as a step toward war similar to the Iraq vote.

No-Show

In a December debate, Clinton said she wasn't "advocating a rush to war" with Iran. Her campaign also has pointed out that Obama was absent from the Senate on the day of the vote. "If Senator Obama, for example, had really believed it was an indirect authorization to attack Iran, he would not have stayed away on the campaign trail, but would have come back to vote against it," Bill Clinton wrote in a letter cited by New York Times columnist Frank Rich on Dec. 23.

Overall, Obama has stressed a greater willingness to advocate diplomacy over force. He has said he would meet with anti-U.S. dictators without preconditions in his first year in office. Hillary Clinton said his comments were "irresponsible and frankly naive."

Obama defended his position, citing the precedents of President John F. Kennedy's communications with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, President Richard Nixon's meeting with China's Mao Zedong, and President Ronald Reagan's arms agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev.

'Petty Tyrant'

"I'm not afraid that America will lose a propaganda battle with a petty tyrant," Obama said.

Obama, however, has said that he wouldn't meet with Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamic organization that seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and opposes peace talks, is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Obama also has departed from his views on talking to foes and working with allies by advocating military action in Pakistan to root out al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, even without permission.

"My job as commander-in-chief will be to make sure that we strike anybody who would do America harm when we have actionable intelligence to do that," he said at the debate in Manchester last week. He later added that "we have to, as much as possible, get Pakistan's agreement before we act."

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser and now advises Obama, said the Illinois senator understands that to avoid war, it may be "necessary to negotiate with the devil." Clinton, he said, has "moved more towards his positions. She is hanging onto his coattails."

'Caring' Image

Madeleine Albright, who was Brzezinski's deputy and later secretary of state under Bill Clinton, disagrees with her former boss on both counts. She said she is campaigning for Hillary Clinton because of her "experience, her knowledge of the people involved, her understanding of using all tools in the toolbox." As first lady, "she was able to present an image of a caring America."

The perception among many Democratic voters that Clinton is more of a hawk and Obama is more willing to talk appears so far to have played to Obama's advantage. That may be why her campaign plays down their differences on issues, while the Obama camp is eager to emphasize them. In a speech after her third- place finish in the Iowa caucuses last week, Clinton stressed that she knows force should be used "as a last resort."

Foreign affairs and political experts differ over which posture ultimately will be the most politically successful.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Obama "has to be careful, because he doesn't want to imply that he'd never use force or he'll get crushed in a general election. I think she's playing it more savvy."

Stephanie Cutter, a strategist who was communications director for Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004, said "it is clearly in Hillary Clinton's interest" to "blur the lines between them, but at the end of the day, for many Democratic primary voters, it's about that vote to go to war."

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net .
Last Updated: January 8, 2008 00:07 EST

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