by John Isaacs
President-elect Barack Obama announced today that he will nominate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) to be Secretary of State. Selecting a former rival for the most prestigious of cabinet positions has unleashed a torrent of media coverage, most of which has focused on grossly exaggerated disagreements during the presidential campaign and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.
This reporting misses the point. As Lt. General Robert Gard, chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, wrote recently, “It’s not Hillary, it’s the policy stupid!” Reporters tend to exaggerate conflict because it makes for more interesting copy. The fact is, however, that when it comes to foreign policy, Obama and Clinton agree far more than they disagree.
The following comparison of Obama and Clinton’s positions is based on several indicators: U.S. Senate voting records; national security platforms as laid out in articles and op-eds; and responses to queries in debates, public appearances, and questionnaires. Although campaign pledges and voting records do not always accurately translate into actual policy, they can provide important clues as to policy inclinations.
Hillary Clinton’s position on Iraq has been complex. She joined Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in supporting the 2002 authorization to go to war, and although she has refused to apologize for the vote, she later said, “If I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.” As a presidential candidate, Clinton promised, within 60 days of taking office, to begin withdrawing troops at the rate of one or two brigades a month, with the goal of getting most combat troops out by the end of 2009.
In 2002, when he was an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama opposed the war. After he was elected to the U.S. Senate, he and Clinton both voted against early proposals by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and others to set a timetable for withdrawal; now both Obama and Clinton vote consistently in favor of establishing a timetable. Obama’s plan for exiting Iraq would, like Clinton’s, send home one or two combat brigades a month, with all combat troops out by the end of 2009. However, at an MSNBC debate in September 2007, neither Clinton nor Obama would guarantee that they would have all U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of their first term. Both Obama and Clinton have opposed permanent bases in Iraq.
President Bush has displayed unremitting hostility toward the radical regime dominating Iran, a country that U.S. intelligence sources report had previously been pursuing a nuclear weapons program. He branded Iran part of the “axis of evil” and promoted regime change as the preferred U.S. policy. With a few limited exceptions, the United States under Bush has refused to talk directly with Iran.
Obama and Clinton have delivered messages on Iran that were mixed. Obama promised to open a dialogue with Iran without preconditions to attempt to work out a solution. However, he called Iran “a threat to all of us” and suggested in March 2007 that the military option should remain on the table. At the same time, he said that it “would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran” and condemned the administration’s “saber-rattling” on Iran.
Clinton pledged to reach out immediately to Iran, saying, “you don’t make peace with your friends. You have got to deal with … people whose interests diverge from yours.” At the same time, she indicated that she remains open to all options, including military ones. Clinton also declared: “We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons.” She voted for a controversial amendment offered by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Lieberman that proposed labeling Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Obama missed that vote but called the amendment a repeat of the mistakes that led to war in Iraq; however, he cosponsored an earlier bill declaring the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
In 2007, a bipartisan group of senior and former government officials called for moving toward a “world free of nuclear weapons.” In their article by that name, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), and former Secretary of Defense William Perry urged the United States to lead an international effort to rethink traditional deterrence, reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles, and take other steps toward the longer term goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world.
Obama has been clear in his support of their effort. In response to a Council for a Livable World questionnaire, he promised: “As president, I will take the lead to work for a world in which the roles and risks of nuclear weapons can be reduced and ultimately eliminated.” Clinton said that “I endorse the vision set out by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry, and George Shultz of a world without nuclear weapons and their idea of taking practical steps toward that vision.”
New Nuclear Weapons: The Bush administration has put forward proposals to build a new generation of nuclear weapons; however, these plans might be seen as conflicting with U.S. efforts to restrain other states’ nuclear ambitions.
Clinton voted against these programs all four times. She was clear in response to a Council for a Livable World questionnaire: “The Bush administration has dangerously put the cart before the horse, planning to rush ahead with new nuclear weapons without any considered assessment of what we need these weapons for or what the impact of building them would be on our effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.” Obama, only in the Senate for the fourth vote, also opposed the new weapons. He was less categorical to the Council’s queries, responding that he did not support “a premature decision to produce the [Reliable Replacement Warhead].”
Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: One of the longest sought goals of the nuclear age has been a global ban on all nuclear test explosions as an important step to advance nuclear nonproliferation. In 1996, after 50 years of work, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed and opened for ratification. However, three years later, the Senate decisively rejected the treaty. Although the United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since 1992, the Bush administration has not put the treaty forward for a new vote.
Although neither Clinton nor Obama were in the Senate at the time of the 1999 vote, both have promised to make the test ban treaty a priority of their first term in office and pledged to work to rebuild bipartisan support for the treaty.
In 2001, the Bush administration withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and since then has moved swiftly to deploy national missile defense interceptors in Alaska and California. The latest fiscal budget request for 2009 is $12.3 billion for all forms of missile defense.
Obama has been critical of the Bush missile defense plans: “The Bush Administration has in the past exaggerated missile defense capabilities and rushed deployments for political purposes.” Clinton’s position has been more ambiguous. Of three key votes in 2004, she voted in effect for missile defense once and against it twice. However, she criticized President Bush’s decision in 2001 to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and both she and Obama voted for an amendment offered by Sen. Carl Levin in 2005 (the last major vote on missile defense) while McCain missed the vote. She also criticized the Bush administration of “focusing obsessively on expensive and unproven missile defense technology.” Neither Clinton nor Obama has indicated plans for missile defense.
Missile Defense Site in Europe: Obama has not been clear what he would do with the Bush proposal, but indicated that he would not allow the program “to divide ‘new Europe’ and ‘old Europe.'” It is also unclear what Clinton’s position is.
OTHER ISSUES IN BRIEF
Closing Guantanamo Bay prison: Clinton and Obama agree: Close the prison.
U.S.-India nuclear deal: Obama and Clinton voted for the U.S.-India nuclear deal in 2006, but they also voted for amendments to condition the deal on India ending military cooperation with Iran and a presidential certification that nuclear cooperation with India will not aid India in making more nuclear weapons.
Military forces: Obama and Clinton have called for expanding the size of our active duty military forces.
North Korea: Obama called for “sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy” with North Korea. Clinton called for “direct contact, engagement” with Pyongyang.
Nuclear nonproliferation: Clinton and Obama committed to securing all vulnerable nuclear weapons materials around the world within four years of taking office.