On Iraq, Front-Running Dem Senators' Records Match
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As leading candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama head into the Nevada caucus, toting their bite-sized campaign slogans - "change," "hope," "experience" - the facts of their Senate pasts have faded from the scene. Though both pledge to end the war in Iraq, Obama has made his antiwar image a centerpiece of his campaign, drawing crowds of young supporters inspired by his initial opposition to the invasion. However, Clinton and Obama's war voting records in the Senate read virtually the same.
"One of the funny dynamics we've seen is Obama's people attacking Clinton by tying her to supporting the war," said Robert Naiman, senior policy analyst and national coordinator of Just Foreign Policy. "But it's hard to say whether there are any meaningful differences between the two of them."
Obama and Clinton have shared the same stance on all major Iraq votes since Obama entered the Senate. These include the approval of over $300 billion in no-strings-attached war funds. The only war spending bill that Clinton and Obama voted against was the 2007 version, which all four Senate presidential hopefuls balked at because a withdrawal timetable was removed from the legislation. A year before, both Obama and Clinton voted against attaching a timetable for withdrawal to war funding.
Beyond spending, Clinton and Obama both voted to confirm key players in the pro-war arena: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, among others.
So what differentiates the two candidates on the war? Analysts have pointed to their positions on Iran: Clinton voted to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, while Obama did not, and Obama has encouraged diplomacy between the US and Iran, which, according to Naiman, could significantly aid in the stabilization of Iraq.
However, Obama did not vote against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard measure; he was campaigning in New Hampshire when the vote was taken. And Clinton has spoken out in favor of curbing the president's authority to singlehandedly initiate war on Iran.
It's what happened before Obama's Senate term that dominates the war-record comparison, according to independent foreign policy journalist Allan Nairn, who blogs at newsc.blogspot.com. In particular, Nairn said, Obama is boosted by an antiwar speech he made as a state senator in 2002, criticizing the invasion of Iraq before it began.
"That's the one thing that sets them apart," Nairn said. "That speech."
What They Say They'll Do
Both front-runners propose to begin withdrawing troops "immediately." This pledge for an initial withdrawal, though, would essentially continue status quo policy, and in itself is "not very meaningful," according to Naiman. Troop levels will be falling anyway as the surge ends.
Beyond that, the Obama campaign's Iraq proposal centers around a 16-month goal for bringing all "combat troops" home. It would leave troops in Iraq to protect the American embassy and execute "targeted strikes" on al-Qaeda. The "targeted strikes" language echoes a redeployment bill that was blocked by Republicans in the Senate in November. (Both Obama and Clinton voted to allow that bill to move forward.)
Obama's plan has the potential to efficiently end the war, although not as quickly as it could be ended, according to Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who also serves as the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus. He maintains that the key question is how the phrase "targeted strikes" is interpreted.
"In Obama's case, I'm guessing that it would be an option used only rarely - such as taking out a recently discovered bomb factory or a particularly notorious foreign cell responsible for terrorism - and not a cover for going after insurgents in general," Zunes said. "These would be small, hit-and-run, special-forces kinds of missions, not major ground offensives or sustained bombing campaigns."
However, the plan's open-endedness leaves some analysts skeptical. Calling for some troops to remain in Iraq without a date for withdrawal leaves open the possibility of a long-term presence. "Targeting al-Qaeda" is in itself a fuzzy proposition, leaving the location and extent of a possible attack ambiguous. Moreover, according to Nairn, allowing an unspecified number of soldiers to remain for embassy protection is grounds for concern.
"The embassy in Iraq is going to be the biggest embassy in the world," Nairn said. "Just protecting that vast complex could require a fairly substantial number of troops." Obama's plan does not specify the future of the more than 180,000 US-paid private mercenaries positioned in Iraq.
Clinton's plan similarly allows for an extended presence in Iraq and excludes mercenaries from the redeployment equation. Her proposal differs from Obama's in that it does not identify a goal date for withdrawal. It states that upon entering office, in addition to "immediately" beginning to bring troops home, Clinton would direct her advisers to draw up a withdrawal plan based on conditions at the time.
Although she has spoken in campaign speeches of ending the war as her "first and most important mission as president," Clinton has also endorsed a long-term limited troop presence. In a March interview with The New York Times, she stated that a "military as well as political mission" remains to be accomplished in Iraq.
At a September debate in New Hampshire, neither candidate would commit to a guaranteed US withdrawal from Iraq by the end of their first term in office. Moreover, there is nothing legally binding about a campaign promise, and both Clinton and Obama have been careful to reserve the right to amend their proposals as conditions change.
"Even if the candidates were to offer a more specific commitment, they could always say in the future, 'That was then and this is now,'" Nairn said. "Voters are being asked to buy something without opening the box. They can't really tell what they'll be getting."
Judgment and Influence
In forecasting what each front-runner's Iraq policy would look like post-inauguration, in-the-moment judgment may mean more than campaign proposal language, according to Naiman. Zunes calls judgment the "biggest difference" between Obama and Clinton, noting Obama's initial opposition to the war and his prediction of its consequences. (Obama predicted an invasion would increase violence, instability and mobilization of al-Qaeda forces.) Nairn, however, interprets that contrast as a difference in circumstance, noting that Obama, not yet a US senator, had more freedom to speak out against the war when it began - especially since his overwhelmingly liberal constituents were likely to oppose the war themselves.
One key factor in Iraq policy - both on the campaign trail and in the White House - is who the candidates choose to surround themselves with, according to Naiman. "You're basically voting for the advisers," he said.
According to Zunes, Obama's advisers include a wide range of mostly liberal-leaning Democrats. Foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, for example, has been an outspoken critic of the war.
However, Nairn points to a few of the Obama crew's pro-war personalities. During Bill Clinton's presidency, Obama adviser Anthony Lake led the push to invade Haiti, then pressured President Jean Bertrand Aristide to embrace World Bank and IMF involvement in the Haitian economy. Another adviser, General Merrill McPeak, oversaw the delivery of fighter planes to Indonesia after the East Timor massacre in 1991. Obama adviser Dennis Ross, a foreign affairs analyst on Fox News, was a vocal defender of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza throughout his State Department career in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.
On the Clinton side, adviser Jack Keane helped craft last year's "surge" policy in Iraq, while Michael O'Hanlon was an avid surge supporter. Advisers Richard Holbrooke and Wesley Clark, who both worked for Bill Clinton's administration, have bounced back and forth between support and skepticism on the Iraq war.
Although the slate of pro-war personnel on the Clinton and Obama teams may be rich for analysis, comparing and contrasting the contenders' advisers won't necessarily make for an informed decision, according to Nairn.
"Once a candidate is chosen, all of their advisers are pretty much interchangeable," Nairn said. So an Obama administration might be just as likely to include O'Hanlon as it would to include Power.
Regardless of the front-runners' voting records and policy proposals, Naiman still sees a way that the antiwar rallying cries of the campaign trail might translate into antiwar action for a new administration. Especially for Obama, there will be pressure to follow up on those promises of "change."
"Expectations create their own momentum," Naiman said. "Obama is running as an antiwar candidate, and his supporters are more antiwar than Clinton's. If Obama becomes president, his base will expect him to get us out of Iraq, whether he wants to or not."
The push for withdrawal from the Democratic base would also influence a Clinton presidency, according to Naiman, though its rationale might be slightly different. With Clinton's slew of promises to shift priorities to the domestic front - for example, her emphasis on universal health care - the budget won't hold up unless operations in Iraq are substantially reduced.
However, Nairn notes that neither candidate has committed to pulling out of Iraq even if a US exit would result in the collapse of the American-supported Iraqi government: a risky political move, but perhaps the only scenario for complete withdrawal. "To really support ending the war, a candidate would have to say, 'Yes, I'd be willing to see that administration fall,'" Nairn said, noting that "long-shot" candidates Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel have implicitly stated they would tolerate that possibility. "Without that, there's not likely to be much difference in Iraq policy whether Clinton or Obama wins - or whether a Democrat or Republican wins."
Maya Schenwar is a Chicago-based freelance writer and an editor for Publications International.