From Your Blog to God's Ear

TNI comments on the unprecedented attacks on candidates’ foreign policy advisors.

In the course of a month, something unprecedented has happened. A foreign policy advisor to a primary candidate-not even the candidate in a general election-has come under scrutiny for what they have said and written-and it starts with the blogs and then moves into the mainstream media.

On November 29, Matt Yglesias wrote an entry, "Bad Answers", where he took aim at the foreign policy advisors to Senator Hillary Clinton, especially Lee Feinstein, foreign policy and national security director for the Clinton campaign (and Richard Holbrooke by extension), for their views on Iraq and the need for war in 2002. He noted:

Advisors are worth taking a look at, because "experts" tend to lay their ideas out in the press in more detail than do politicians. Clinton, for example, just hasn't clearly said one way or another whether or not she believes unilateral preventive war is a good basis for non-proliferation policy. But she did authorize the use of force against Iraq, and several of the people working for her on a high level have taken clearer stands in favor of preventive war, so it's natural to refer to them in raising the issue.

On December 4, Yglesias extracted several block quotes from an article Feinstein had co-authored with Anne-Marie Slaughter in early 2004, to again hammer his point "Has Bush Not Gone Far Enough." He did so because, as he wrote:

I hope people will be able to convince the magazine to make the article available for free online since it's of considerable public interest in light of Feinstein's role. Thus far, the other Presidential contenders haven't seen fit to agree with John Edwards that unilateral preventive war should be discarded as a tool of non-proliferation policy, but they haven't seen fit to agree with him, either. Hillary and (especially) Bill Clinton have been attempting to muddy the waters on the question of what they thought about Iraq back in 2003, but the best evidence available from their conduct back then would be that they are supporters of unilateral prevention.

For a December 8 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Yglesias repeated the main teaser line of his December 4 post from Feinstein's article ("the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.") and made clear again that his focus on what the foreign policy advisors to the campaigns say is relevant because voters need to know whether candidates agree with the Bush approach to foreign policy (and just feel it was poorly implemented) or whether they are offering a different approach. "There's a big difference between getting new principles in 2009 and simply getting different people to implement the old ones."

Jump ahead to the Sunday before Christmas. In his column in the New York Times, Frank Rich took square aim at Senator Clinton's foreign policy team, declaring, ". . . .her choice for foreign-policy director in 2008 makes me question her ability to profit from experience and make a clean break with the establishment thinking in both parties that enabled the Iraq fiasco." Rich's column-reprinted in newspapers across the country-has also been picked up by bloggers, especially Obama supporters, one of whom prefaced the Rich story by saying, ". . . .every Iowan needs to read this before they caucus."

There's something even larger at play here-that the notion that there is a foreign policy "establishment" in both parties where, no matter who the candidate is, there are recognized "Democrats" and "Republicans" who will be part of the advisory team is breaking down. This seems to be unprecedented; I do not recall in recent previous presidential elections where there was this focus on advisors to candidates and the sense that voters are not voting simply for a candidate but also for a team. Certainly, the Rich column seems to indicate that voters are not only choosing between two different candidates-Senators Obama and Clinton-but have the opportunity to choose between two different foreign policies and two different groups of possible future officials, positioning Susan Rice as a counter to Lee Feinstein.

What is now interesting to note is whether Yglesias' December 19 entry on his blog, "Holbrooke's Secret Plan"-one that takes an in-depth look at what Richard Holbrooke was saying about Iraq in 2002 and 2003 (and contrasting it with his more recent comments)-follows the same trajectory. And it seems apparent that in this election cycle-more than in previous ones-commentators and activists are firing warning shots over the bows of candidates that who advises them may and will be used against them.


Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.