Style with Substance

To the degree that I have embraced the power of Obama’s words as a way to move the country toward a new way of thinking about politics, I risk giving the impression that I too have uncritically fallen into the mainstream media’s simple dichotomy that insists that Clinton is substance without much style and Obama is style without much substance.  Leaving the racist undertones of this way of formulating the differences to one side, it is perhaps important to address the distinctions between the two candidates directly.


I propose to do this by looking here at the question of foreign affairs to show the substance of Obama’s position and the substantive differences between Obama and Clinton.

Turning to the question of foreign policy, we ought not rely exclusively on the track records of the two candidates nor should we focus only on Clinton’s poor judgment in supporting the war in Iraq or Obama’s good judgment in opposing it from the start. These are important points, but the best way to determine how a president will conduct foreign affairs is to look at her or his foreign policy advisors.  


One of Hillary Clinton’s main foreign policy advisors is Lee Feinstein, the Clinton Campaign’s National Security Director.  He co-wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in 2004 with Anne-Marie Slaughter that was critical of the Bush administration’s strategy of unilateral preemption even as it argued for a “collective duty to protect” the lives and liberty of citizens of “nations run by rulers without  internal checks on their power….”  It sounds as if the extent of their critique of the Bush Administration is the unilateral nature of their approach.  The “collective duty to protect” seems to be a re-affirmation of the strategy of preemption but “exercised collectively, through a global or regional organization.”  Indeed, they suggest “the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.”

Obama’s foreign policy team includes Joseph Cirincione, Lawrence Korb and the human rights scholar Samantha Power.  Cirincione has argued for a policy in which diplomacy plays a central role in the attempt to “contain and engage” nations like Iran.  He argues: 

“Rather than pursue the faint hope that the organization of coercive measures will force Iran’s capitulation, our contain-and-engage strategy couples the pressures created by sanctions, diplomatic isolation and investment freezes with practical compromises and realizable security assurances to encourage Iran onto a verifiable, non-nuclear weapons path.”


This fits well with the central idea of Samantha Power’s Pulitzer prize winning book, A Problem from Hell, which is “that if the shapers of US foreign policy looked out for the human consequences of their decisions, the world and the United States would be far better off.”  When Obama speaks powerfully about change it is to give voice to this very different way of pursuing foreign affairs.  This is part of the substance that underlies the style.

For a good, balanced discussion of the substantial differences between Clinton and Obama on this issue see, Stephen Zunes’s article, Behind Obama and Clinton, on Common Dreams.

I want to thank Marcus Dracos for pointing me to information about the various advisors of the candidates, and for his thoughtful analysis of the differences between Clinton and Obama.  Much of what is written here grew out of conversations with Marcus.

To view Samantha Powers talk about why she works for and supports Obama, see below:

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Kristin says:

    I think your assessment of Samantha Power as a foreign affairs advisor for the Obama team is a little overstated. I know Power’s position fairly well, and she is dangerously enthusiastic about preemptive American interventionism for the prevention of genocide throughout the world. She has notably written articles condemning the United States for its failure to attack Rwanda militarily in order to prevent the Rwandan genocide, and she advocates what I think are pretty naive prescriptions for ending human rights abuses in Darfur. Power wants a universal American norm of stopping genocide. I have many concerns about this, but just to name a few: I think this could lead to neoimperialist foreign policy that is just as dangerous as that of the Bush administration. I think the US is woefully uninformed about what it would take to stop a genocide and enforce human rights norms in any setting. I think our recent attempts at “enforcing rights norms” have gone exceptionally poorly (from Kosovo to Iraq). I am not claiming to be against humanitarian intervention; I’m just saying that I think it’s such a complex and difficult issue that Power’s enthusiasm about it makes me extremely nervous. And the problem with Darfur is that humanitarian intervention spearheaded by a country like the US would smack of neoimperialism–and would problably increase tensions between the government–and between the Muslim and Christian segments of that population….possibly leading to further human rights abuses and violence down the road. I haven’t read anything Power has said about the Obama campaign recently, but these are some things she’s well-known for as a scholar. Ultimately, I’m worried about her lack of reflexivity and unwillingness to engage human rights in a critical manner.
    Here are some recommendations:
    Books and articles (I had a very hard time finding academic publications. I actually couldn’t find any at all. A more detailed CV and list of public appearances/interview clips can be found here: http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/cchrp/research/authorindex.php Note that she’s written with Amy Chua and Michael Ignatieff—Ignatieff, in particular, is known for his hard line internventionism.):
    Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Paperback Edition. Perennial, 2003.
    “Rethinking Iran.” TIME (January 17, 2008).
    “The Envoy: The United Nations’ Doomed Mission to Iraq.” New Yorker (January 7, 2008): 43.
    “The U.S. and Turkey: Honesty Is the Best Policy.” TIME (October 18, 2007).
    “The Human-Rights Vacuum.” TIME (October 11, 2007).
    “Access Denied.” TIME (September 26, 2007). Op-Eds
    “How to Stop Genocide in Iraq.” Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2007.
    “Our War on Terror.” Review of U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual; Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror; and On Suicide Bombing, by U.S. Army/Marine Corps, Ian Shapiro, and Talal Asad, respectively. New York Times Book Review, July 29, 2007.
    A review detailing the problems with Power and similar liberal human rights people:
    Review: [untitled]
    Author(s) of Review: Howard Tolley, Jr.
    Reviewed Work(s): Path to Collective Madness: A Study in Social Order and Political Pathology by Dipak K. Gupta
    A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power
    Never Again? The United States and the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide since the Holocaust by Peter Ronayne
    Perspectives on Politics > Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 456-458
    There are other good critics. Andrew Bacevich is a good scholar who writes from a more critical perspective on American interventionism. I’ll let you know if I think of others.

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