The opposing foreign policy teams of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had their genesis 46 years ago in the 1962 class of diplomatic trainees at the U.S. State Department. Anthony Lake, a Wasp from Connecticut, and Richard Holbrooke, the son of European-Jewish immigrants, arrived in Washington that summer, destined to become two of the best diplomats of their generation. They became close friends and were posted together to Vietnam one year later. Lake would later sign Holbrooke's wedding certificate, and Holbrooke eventually became the godfather of one of Lake's daughters. They also became competitors, rising together in a tight orbit and shining as young stars in the Carter Administration State Department.
But in late 1992, when prime spots were being handed out under Bill Clinton, Lake had an inside track with the President-elect, while Holbrooke was an outsider. Lake snagged one of the top jobs, National Security Adviser; Holbrooke was, for a time, in danger of being shut out entirely. His friend Sandy Berger (who would later replace Lake) fought to get Holbrooke appointed ambassador to Germany.
Lake denies he cut his old friend out of the foreign policy brain trust, saying he had left town when the spoils of election victory were being divided. But the friendship seemed severed and now, with Lake serving as top foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama and Holbrooke a front runner for Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton, the two men find themselves in one of the most high-stakes competitions of their careers.
The struggle is all the more fierce because Obama and Clinton are not terribly far apart in their foreign policy approaches. For all the shouting over Iraq, both Democrats propose a limited and ultimately hard-to-deliver drawdown of U.S. troops there. Both want to talk with America's enemies--give or take a few crazy heads of state--and both want to boost foreign aid to win back goodwill around the globe. "You've got a split in a tribe of like-minded people," says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution. But if Democrats have none of the deep ideological divisions that have plagued Republicans since before Gerald Ford, there are sharp character differences between the two candidates that would define a presidency.
Tony Lake can seem shy and self-effacing on the outside, but he is fiercely competitive. To get to his day job as a professor at Georgetown University, he rides on a 49.9cc Taiwanese motor scooter, wearing a gray suit, a tie, a black molded helmet and sunglasses. Pegged as an idealist, Lake has big strategies for counterterrorism and international development that have meshed naturally with Obama's belief that the Iraq invasion was an inadequate cold war--style response to 21st century problems like poverty, insecure borders and weapons proliferation. To get Obama ready for a presidential run, Lake has assembled a 200-person shadow National Security Council for the candidate, whose childhood in the Third World and paternal ties to Africa have not made up for foreign policy inexperience.
In the CNN/YouTube debate last July, for example, Obama said he would meet with leaders like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea's Kim Jong Il without conditions in his first year as President, a promise one senior adviser admits was unplanned and unvetted by staff. Clinton pounced, declaring she would be more careful about whom she met--"I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes"--and later calling Obama's answer "irresponsible and frankly naive."
Holbrooke's style offers a sharp contrast to Lake's. America's toughest diplomatic tactician, he is alternately ingratiating and bullying on the surface but strategically minded beneath. The former U.N. ambassador, who three years after his 1992 disappointment badgered and cajoled the warring parties in Bosnia into a peace deal few had thought possible, has the more finely tuned short-range political ear of the two. In a late-December conference call following former Pakistani Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto's assassination, some Clinton policy aides argued for a soft line on President Pervez Musharraf. Holbrooke countered that Clinton should not just slam Musharraf for dictatorial tendencies but also attack George W. Bush for being gullible in trusting the Pakistani leader as much as he had. Holbrooke "was making the point that this was not only good policy but it was good politics," says a participant in the call.
Too keen a political ear in a candidate, though, can be a liability, since it can keep him or her from hearing anything else--like the facts. Clinton's biggest error so far has been bending events to bolster her credentials, as with her exaggeration of the danger she faced on a 1996 trip to Bosnia. Moreover, several of her advisers complain that she has been late to embrace big foreign policy ideas. When I asked if Clinton had tackled the question of foreign assistance as a tool of counterterrorism, for example, an adviser said some aides keep trying to "push that dung ball up the hill, but nobody's really focusing on that right now."
Lake's and Holbrooke's key roles notwithstanding, each Democratic candidate has a deep foreign policy team. Obama's advisers include three former Clinton Administration appointees: Greg Craig, who headed the State Department's in-house think tank from 1997 to '98; Richard Danzig, a former Navy Secretary; and Susan Rice, an expert on terrorism and Africa. Clinton's roster features former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, General Wesley Clark and Craig's former deputy Lee Feinstein.
But in ways that are almost uncanny, Lake's worldview and idealistic bent and Holbrooke's tactical skills and political drive reflect the strengths and weaknesses of their candidates. In Obama's case, the combination of lofty vision and inexperience looks a lot like Bill Clinton circa 1993, when he entered the White House not long after the fall of the Soviet Union and with Lake as his top foreign policy adviser. Hillary Clinton's political emphasis is reminiscent of her husband's poll-driven final years, when Holbrooke, Albright and Berger ran diplomacy. "The real foreign policy choice," says a former Clinton State Department official, "may be between Clinton Term One and Clinton Term Two."