The Difference an Advisor Makes

With respect to the question about Obama using Clinton-era advisors in his campaign, which was the lead-in for my post below, I have to agree with Matthew Yglesias that the question about Obama’s advisors is a good one. As he explains:

I think the question was actually meant to ask precisely what was asked — superficially, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to choose from between Bill Clinton’s wife, with a team packed full of ex-Clinton people, and between a young Senator from Illinois with a team packed full of ex-Clinton people.


But though there are various exceptions and ins-and-outs to this, the basic shape of things is that Hillary’s team is weighted toward people who, like her, backed the war whereas Obama’s team is weighted toward people who, like him, opposed it. Obama’s standard has also attracted some prominent people like Zbigniew Brzezinksi and Samantha Power (both of whom opposed the war) who weren’t in the Clinton administration.

Neither candidate has really tried to open up a broad doctrinal argument, but within the wonk world, in short, there’s a significant divide that’s reflected in the Clinton versus Obama race. And while this was most notably operationalized over the Iraq question, it reflects some broader differences — Obama people are more likely to value international law, strategic restraint, and a narrow focus on al-Qaeda whereas Clinton people are more likely to take a pragmatic/instrumental view of international institutions, worry that nothing will happen without American leadership, and to have more sympathy for the Bushian idea that you need broad confrontation with rogue regimes.

I think that this is absolutely correct, and it’s definitely a difference worth noting. For what it’s worth, my sympathies lie in the direction of the Obama camp. The past seven years have demonstrated that the threat of Islamist terrorism, although very real, is less of a threat to the West than I and just about everybody else thought shortly after 9/11. Additionally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have keenly demonstrated the limits of American military power. We may be the “only remaining superpower”–whatever that means–but our power is limited and it’s clear that America cannot change the world on its own.

Personally, I think that it would be better for the United States if we placed a stronger emphasis on continuing to build strong international institutions capable of settling disputes between nations. Unfortunately, this will involve doing things that, in the short term, may seem repugnant, such as welcoming dictatorships into the international community. However, if the post-World War II era has taught us anything, it is that isolation and sanctions only strengthen dictatorships, while trade and inclusion weakens them. It doesn’t happen consistently, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens. And strong international institutions and a strong consensus about human rights and other issues can help to accelerate the process.

Still, I admit that this particular view, to which Obama appears to at the very least sympathize with, is hardly a universal one. How America should act in the world, and whether it should or has the right to lead it is an argument worth having. A vigorous debate on the matter between Clinton and Obama would be welcome. Though, given the nature of the political process, it probably won’t happen.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Mike says:

    Just curious – what kind of money do top advisors make?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a razor’s edge between greater reliance on international institutions and “let George do it”.

  3. The list of advisors isn’t black and white, either. For example, Vali Nasr advises Clinton and he supports engaging Iran diplomatically.

  4. davod says:

    “The list of advisors isn’t black and white, either. For example, Vali Nasr advises Clinton and he supports engaging Iran diplomatically.”

    Clinton doesn’t?

  5. Ed says:

    The current international body the UN continues to ask the US to solve disputes by putting boots on the ground.

  6. M1EK says:

    It’s amazing – in 2007, you right-wingers are still conflating opposing the war in Iraq with not caring much about Islamist terrorism in the hopes that history will be muddled enough that you can claim to not be quite so treasonous or stupid. Good work.

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Alex, have you noticed a decrease in the Taliban population of Afghanistan or a decrease in the power the Baath party has in Iraq? If the west is somewhat more secure from the threat of al Qaeda, it is not because they lessened the threat. It is because most of their leaders are dead or captured. Nazism was not much of a threat after WWII. People like you are not only irresponsible in their assessment of problems, that also extends to the solutions. The lack of strong response during the Clinton Presidency invited the attacks of 9/11. To believe otherwise is to invite further agression. The best defense is a good offense.