It has seemed to me, for as long as I’ve been watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama make foreign and national-security policy, that the differences in outlook and approach between the two of them are fundamental and dramatic. I would call these differences profound, but I don’t want to be accused of hyperbole. It is not just that Clinton has a bias toward action in the international arena, and that Obama is far more hesitant, far more aware (too aware, in the eyes of critics) of the downside of action; it is that there are basic differences in the way they understand America’s role in the world, and the qualities that make America exceptional. They also differ, to my eye, in their understanding of American indispensability, and of the relationship between power and diplomacy.
The only person I know who spends more time thinking about the dispositional and ideological differences between Obama and Clinton than I do is Mark Landler, the New York Times reporter who has covered the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department and who recently published a book, Alter Egos (its very long and serious subtitle: “Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power”), that explores these differences through the prism, mainly, of the Middle East crises that have consumed the Obama administration. Landler has written an excellent book, the definitive examination to date of, among other things, a president who has tried to extract the U.S. from the Middle East (without much success, it goes almost without saying). Alter Egos is also the most authoritative attempt to explain Obama’s complicated relationship with his first-term secretary of state, a thwarted competitor-turned-staffer who, if she wins the presidency this year, will inherit a world that is in some ways as messy as the one Obama himself inherited from George W. Bush.