Hot Policy Wonks For The Democrats: The New Realists

More recently, in June, Mrs. Clinton spoke at the standing-room only opening of CNAS and said, “We must regain our place in the world with a new security policy that serves our national interest, recaptures our moral authority, works with our allies, modernizes our military and confidently projects our values.”

Mrs. Clinton listed national interest first and values last, a slight shift, but a significant one to the finely-attuned ears of the foreign policy establishment.

Mr. Obama, by contrast, seems to be moving away from anything smacking of restrained pragmatism—the Wilsonians disdainfully call it “soft realism”—by stating recently that he would meet with the leaders of rogue nations, and that he would attack Al Qaeda in Pakistan with or without the approval of the Pakistani government.

“It’s very striking that Obama talks about a common security for our common humanity—now that is really engaged,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school and an oft-mentioned candidate for secretary of state in a Democratic administration. “He is really grasping that we are an interdependent world and the only way to address our problems is to embrace it—whereas the Clinton campaign is more focused on restoring our standing in the world.

“That is, of course, also a big part of Obama, but you are looking at what’s the lead,” she continued. “So the leads are different. I think he is pushing the envelope on a number of things. His speech on Pakistan, he is willing to say I would talk to anybody. He hasn’t backed down.”

The third leading Democratic contender, John Edwards, has, like Mrs. Clinton, made the pursuit of a humbler foreign policy a centerpiece of his campaign.

In a lengthy articulation of his foreign policy views in the September edition of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Edwards puts “restoring America’s reputation” as his priority, and writes that “[r]ather than alienating the rest of the world through assertions of infallibility and demands of obedience, as the current administration has done, U.S. foreign policy must be driven by a strategy of reengagement.”

An informal foreign policy adviser to Mr. Edwards, Derek Chollet, has taken up residence at CNAS and has an office a few doors down from Ms. Flournoy. In the Foreign Affairs article, Mr. Edwards directly echoed the center’s “Three No’s” Iraq report, by writing that “the United States must retain sufficient forces in the region to prevent a genocide, a regional spillover of the civil war, or the establishment of an al Qaeda safe haven.”

Certainly, the traditional “values” establishment, already under siege by the liberal antiwar Netroots for advocating a gradual approach to withdrawal from Iraq, is wary about the center’s growing influence.

“They are coming out in the same place in terms of, ‘Let’s move away from values,’” said Ms. Slaughter, referring to the center and the antiwar bloggers. “It’s like a flanking movement. It’s one of the reasons many folks like me are standing up and fighting for values even though we know full well that you will be tarred with the neocon brush.”

But Ms. Flournoy and company seem determined to carve out their own prominent place in the liberal foreign policy firmament.

She made it clear in the interview that unlike some prominent bloggers, she thinks the United States is a force for good abroad, and pointed out that she supported an exit strategy from Iraq that calls for a residual force of 60,000 troops.

“If you look at the ‘how’ in what we are suggesting,” she said, “there is a world of difference between us and the others.”