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Cuba’s dramatic announcement last February that Fidel Castro was stepping down as head of the Cuban government presented Barack Obama with an unprecedented opportunity to establish his foreign policy credentials and set himself apart from Hillary Clinton, as well as the Bush Administration and its heir-apparent, John McCain.
It should have been an easy shot: President Bush said U.S. policy toward Cuba, particularly the longstanding U.S. embargo, would not change one iota until “free and fair elections” were held in Cuba and the country had embraced his vision of democracy. McCain quickly echoed Bush’s Cold War declaration, which basically amounts to a call for regime change in Havana.
Clinton, asked during a debate if she would be willing to sit down with Raul Castro, Fidel’s successor, replied in similar language. Not “without some evidence that [Cuba] will demonstrate the kind of progress that is in our interest,” she said, pointing out later through a spokesperson that she “supports the embargo and our current policy toward Cuba.”
Obama, true to his pledge to change the U.S. approach to the world, said he would meet with Cuban leaders “without preconditions” because it’s important for the United States “not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies.” Despite calls from some of his advisers for America to trade with Cuba just as it does with China and Vietnam, however, Obama has been silent on lifting the embargo, though he has called for getting rid of restrictions on remittances and family travel to that country.
More recently, Obama has completely abandoned the skepticism about the embargo he expressed during his 2004 run for the Senate. In a May 23 speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, he flatly declared that, as President, he will “maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.” The declaration drew cheers from the virulently anti-Castro crowd.
With Cuba, therefore, we have the basic outline of the foreign policy debate of 2008: more of the same from the Republicans, a generally hawkish approach from Clinton, and a nuanced stance from Obama that underscores his differences with both Clinton and McCain while demonstrating his fealty towards U.S. national security interests and the Democratic foreign policy mainstream.
These differences show up also on Iran.
When Clinton vowed to “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, Obama sharply criticized her comment, saying that’s “not the language we need right now, and I think it’s language reflective of George Bush.”
While Clinton’s team talked recklessly of brandishing nuclear weapons, Obama endorsed proposals to eliminate nukes, and flatly ruled out the use of tactical nuclear weapons against terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan (eliciting a warning from Clinton that Presidents should refrain from publicly discussing “the use and nonuse of nuclear weapons”).
Now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee, predicting what his actual policies will look like requires a careful look at the people he relies on for advice on foreign policy.
Obama’s most important foreign policy adviser is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. In that role, he backed Carter’s aid to the brutal Indonesian government in East Timor, and he infamously pushed for funding the jihadist rebels in Afghanistan against the Soviets. But his hawkish views have mellowed over time. Last August, Brzezinski endorsed Obama and blasted Clinton’s foreign policy approach as “very conventional.” In contrast to Clinton’s advisers, who speak wistfully about Iraq as a policy gone wrong, Brzezinski denounces the war in unequivocal terms. Writing in The Washington Post in March 2008, he called the war a “national tragedy, an economic catastrophe, a regional disaster and a global boomerang for the United States,” and argued that it was “started deliberately, justified demagogically, and waged badly.”
Obama also relies for advice on Tony Lake, who was Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, and Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs (she’s been busy lately moderating Obama’s stance on Cuba). Obama also listens to Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism czar, and Ivo Daalder, a former official in Bill Clinton’s NSC, who heads up Obama’s nonproliferation policies.
Leading Obama’s military advisers is retired Air Force General Tony McPeak, who backed George Bush in 2000 but began working with Obama after meeting him last year. McPeak says he was attracted by Obama’s strong opposition to the war in Iraq and his emphasis on diplomacy. Speaking last January during a West Coast campaign swing, McPeak said Obama would seek to negotiate with Iran, pointing out that, after the September 11 attacks, Tehran cooperated with Washington in tracking Al Qaeda suspects and donated more than $300 million to post-Taliban Afghanistan. The Bush Administration, he said, should have used that “constructive back-channel” to open discussions on other issues—implying that Obama would seize on such opportunities. Obama, he believes, will usher in a new era of foreign policy after the disasters of the Bush-Cheney era. “Our country’s international standing has been frittered away by people who don’t have the foggiest understanding of how the hell the world works,” McPeak told Rolling Stone last March. But McPeak has a hard edge. According to the journalist Allan Nairn, he oversaw the delivery of advanced fighter jets to Suharto in 1991, just after Suharto’s forces had carried out a deliberate massacre of anti-Jakarta demonstrators in Dili, East Timor.
One of the key planks of Obama’s foreign policies is his commitment to “soft power,” such as foreign economic aid, to expand American influence. Last year, he pledged to double U.S. foreign aid by 2012 and increase “both the numbers and capabilities of our diplomats, development experts, and other civilians who can work alongside our military.” Advising him on these issues is John Brennan, a thirty-year veteran of the CIA who once ran the National Counterterrorism Center. Brennan, like many of his former colleagues in the CIA, believes that military power must be augmented by intelligence, diplomacy, and foreign aid, and in a recent interview with a Washington newsletter argued that “there needs to be much more attention paid to those upstream factors and conditions that spawn terrorists” (Brennan is now the CEO of the Analysis Corporation, the same company that, ironically, employed the contract employee who illegally accessed Obama’s passport data at the State Department earlier this year).
In some areas, Obama’s national security policies might be closer to McCain’s. He has said he would act unilaterally to take out “high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan if Pervez Musharraf failed to take action himself. Like McCain, he has also criticized Jimmy Carter for meeting with Hamas.
And on trade and economic policy, Obama has two sides as well. He has approached Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who has critiqued corporate globalization and has estimated the cost of the Iraq War at $3 trillion, as a possible White House adviser. (Stiglitz returned the favor by declaring his support for Obama and calling the candidate’s economic ideas “brilliant.”)
On the other hand, he is also advised by Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who reportedly told Canadian officials that Obama’s critique of NAFTA was “political positioning” and would not become official policy in an Obama White House. Although Goolsbee denied the reports, in an April interview with U.S. News & World Report, he downplayed Obama’s opposition to free trade agreements, saying that “as long as I have known Senator Obama, he has believed that you can’t build a moat around the country, and that trade overall has been good for the economy—but that there have been a lot of people left out.” That’s certainly not the denunciation of free trade deals that many trade unionists are looking for.
One person to watch is Richard Holbrooke. Bill Clinton’s U.N. ambassador, Holbrooke saddled up with Hillary. But ever since he left the Carter Administration, he has been widely viewed within the Democratic Party as a Secretary of State in-waiting, and he himself has strenuously campaigned for the job. If he is elected in November, President Obama would come under enormous pressure from both the Clinton camp and his Democratic supporters—including John Kerry, who relied on Holbrooke during the 2004 campaign—to make him Secretary of State.
Holbrooke, however, carries a lot of baggage—some of it pretty unsightly. He was a State Department official in Vietnam during the 1960s, and under President Carter served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. During those years, he helped provide key assistance to U.S.-backed dictators in South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. His constant refrain was the preservation of U.S. national security interests in the region. After Park Chung Hee, the South Korean dictator, was shot to death in 1979 after eighteen years of increasingly brutal rule, for example, Holbrooke exploded in anger when Christian dissidents protested the continuation of martial law. Their actions, he complained in declassified documents I obtained in 1996, were making it difficult for the United States to avoid “another Iran” in that country.
And like Brzezinski, Holbrooke lent enormous assistance to Suharto’s military to put down the Timorese resistance. Among the weapons systems sold to Suharto with U.S. support were A-10 Broncos that were used to strafe Timorese villages. “If you look at the statistics, from 1976 to 1978 we massively increased our assistance that made the occupation and quelling of the [East Timor] rebellion possible,” Edmund McWilliams, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served in Indonesia during the Clinton Administration, told me. “To my mind, that was when the great bloodletting took place, and it was all done during the watch of Richard Holbrooke and Jimmy Carter, the human rights President.”
Holbrooke also was hawkish on Iraq and has had harsh words for Iran, comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.
Many liberals, including those in the Obama camp, seem to believe that Holbrooke has changed his spots and would make an excellent choice as America’s top diplomat. Last February, Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a former Obama adviser, spoke at a foreign policy forum in Reno, Nevada. I was in the audience, and asked her if Holbrooke would have a place in an Obama Administration.
Power, who won a Pulitzer for her book on genocide, was still working as Obama’s top foreign policy adviser at that point. She replied that, in her opinion, Holbrooke “had evolved” from the 1970s, and regretted some of his actions during that period, particularly in the Philippines, where he backed Ferdinand Marcos (she didn’t mention Korea or Indonesia). Despite his position as a senior adviser to Clinton, Power added, Holbrooke would be welcome in an Obama cabinet. “We won’t exclude people working for Hillary Clinton,” she said. “Ours will be a broad tent.”
While Obama would be the first community organizer in American history to become President and promises to bring a dramatic new face to the global scene, we may end up with a lot of old faces.
Tim Shorrock has been covering U.S. foreign policy for more than twenty-five years. His book on the outsourcing of U.S. intelligence operations, “Spies for Hire,” was published in May by Simon & Schuster.