There are a few things that America’s next president should prepare for, you know, just in case — like another terror attack, an economic drought, or Ann Coulter’s clone. Then there are the problems they know they’ll have to tackle — like a volatile Iraq, a rogue Iran, and a serious image problem for the U.S. abroad, which currently puts us somewhere between Britney Spears and those Head On commercials. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the leading Democratic presidential candidates, have been sending their foreign policy teams on the campaign trail in South Carolina to let voters know that things will be different under a Democratic administration.
Clinton’s campaign is stressing her experience on the world stage, while Obama’s camp is pushing back by focusing on their candidate’s “good judgment.” Both campaigns say they are ready to replace the Bush administration’s cowboy diplomacy with … well, actual diplomacy.
“A Hillary presidency would be a dramatic change in every way,” says Richard Holbrooke, a former U.N. Ambassador and State Department power player under President Bill Clinton, who is now a foreign policy advisor for Hillary’s campaign.
Obama counsel Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, also sees a brighter future on the other side of Jan. 20, 2009.
“The Bush administration is leaving behind an unprecedented quantity of messes,” she says. “The plate is more than full.”
Getting troops out of Iraq will be the top priority and likely one of the chief issues the candidates can use to distinguish themselves from a Republican challenger next year. Clinton has stressed she’ll pull troops out “safely,” but has been pragmatic in making no promises on dates because of the realities on the ground.
“Those candidates who are promising specific timetables are misleading the voters,” Holbrooke says.
Obama has, in fact, proposed a timetable (with troops out within 16 months), but he’ll leave behind enough of residual forces to protect American interests. Equally important will be a functioning government.
“The focus of our efforts needs to be political,” Rice says. “There needs to be a new political dispensation in Iraq if there’s going to be peace.”
Regional involvement and humanitarian and economic development needs internally will also be priorities for Obama, she says.
With the recent National Intelligence Estimate report pronouncing Iran’s nuclear program dead some three years ago, the Iraqi neighbor’s role in the presidential race has become slightly less antagonistic — slightly.
“For those of us who knew there was no justification for considering military action against Iran … the concern is over,” Holbrooke says. “The chances of a war between the United States and Iran are not there.”
But both campaigns note the country could be a player in Iraqi reconstruction, as it was in Afghanistan, or it could serve as a contributor to Iraq’s failure. The Democrats support direct talks with Iran, with Obama prepared for a more personal role, but Rice warns they’re very aware that Iran’s nuclear program “could turn nefarious quickly.”
In an open letter earlier this month, Holbrooke and other Hillary supporters on the foreign policy stage shot back at assertions from other campaigns that Clinton’s role in the White House and in international affairs while her husband was president was largely “an internship.”
“As first lady, she didn’t just go to funerals and empty ceremonial events,” Holbrooke says. “She carried the banner for women’s rights all over the world.”
The most famous example, which Clinton has alluded to on the campaign trail, is the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference, where she declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”
“I have heard women in many parts of the world quote her the way my generation quotes Kennedy’s inaugural speech,” Holbrooke says.
Hillary was also a strong voice on combatting HIV/AIDS and expanding opportunities for women in the third world.
“On carrying the value system of America, she was an emblematic first lady, not just a PR performance,” Holbrooke says.
As a senator, Clinton has worked on the Foreign Affairs Committee and has grappled with a variety of issues, including veterans’ rights, base closings, and securing the signing bonuses for injured soldiers, he says.
Obama isn’t bereft of experience abroad. Some of his childhood was spent overseas and his grandmother still lives in a hut in Kenya, Rice says.
“It’s that kind of insight that gives you a knowledge and sensitivity to the world we live in,” she says.
Obama has also served on the Foreign Relations Committee, sponsoring legislation to reduce global nuclear threats and the risk of pandemic flu. His early criticism of the Iraq war has been a distinction from Clinton and fellow Democratic front-runner John Edwards. Rice suggests it’s evidence he has the good judgment to lead.
“You can have all the experience in the world, but if you don’t have the good judgment, it doesn’t mean much,” she says.
Both campaigns point to a litany of other issues ripe for a strategy shift: Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Darfur. Regardless of the candidate standing after the primary season, the road to a resolution on any of these challenges will begin with a leader looking for answers.