Since the modest beginnings of the public dispute over foreign policy between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton last month, Obama has argued in increasingly sharp terms that he offers a new, fresher approach to dealing with international affairs.
As Obama himself said in his breakout session at the YearlyKos conference last month:
By the way, you may have noticed that over the last two weeks I've had the entire Washington establishment, foreign-policy establishment, folks who collectively helped press for the biggest policy fiasco in our generation, accusing me of being too inexperienced because I had the temerity to suggest that we might want to try talking to our enemies as well as our friends. And I welcome those fights. I love those fights. Now to go to the issue of Republicans.
But in the course of reporting a story about a division in the Democratic foreign-policy establishment for this week's paper, I spoke to retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration, who is a foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign.
In something of a contrast with the line taken by his chosen candidate, Gration said that any differences between Obama and Hillary were more stylistic than substantive.
"We're looking at nuances," said Gration. "We're not looking at radical new approaches. We are looking at execution process and nuances as opposed to views of the world."
He said that the campaigns were forced to emphasize those small differences "in order to get elected."
"When you come down to it," he said, "we want America to be strong. But we have to focus on the differences to get our guys or gals elected."
Gration said that if there is one important distinction between Obama and the other candidates, it is that Obama seems more intent on resisting the doubt about America's indispensable role in the world following the debacle in Iraq.
"In talking to peers and professionals – I see a reaction, almost a pendulum swing, against America only," said Gration, adding of Obama's position, "I don't think his is a pendulum reaction. But how you spin things to connect with the population is to spin things opposite to the way this current administration has been framing factors. What I am trying to say — there are two factors – one that the campaigns are using to distance themselves from the Republican administration and then there's how Sen. Obama approaches problems and sees the world, and that is not a pendulums swing at all."
If anything, Obama has been less swayed by the war in Iraq when it comes to his ideas about a Democratic foreign policy than Clinton or John Edwards have – perhaps because he feels less burned by the war as a result of his opposing it from its inception. But, Gration said, the differences between the Democratic candidates, and even their mainstream Republican counterparts, are more tactical than ideological. The dispute taking place now, then, has more to do with primary politics and positioning than it does foreign policy ideas.
"The problem is that the spin folks are framing it in political terms," said Gration.
"When you get right down to it," the way Senator Obama sees the world "in many ways that's the way Sen. Clinton sees it."