In an arena dominated by a handful of elites, the president of the United States unquestionably has the most important voice on foreign policy -- in his party, in the country, and (still) in the world. That has been particularly true of Barack Obama, who has tightly controlled national security matters from the White House. Because his power is so outsized, we have not included him -- or Vice President Joe Biden, the resident devil's advocate whose occasional verbal missteps belie his deep international experience -- on our list of the 50 Democrats who have the most influence over Democratic foreign policy. But the fact that so much power is centralized in the Oval Office makes those aides favored with access even more important, and Democratic control of the executive branch allows a select group of principals to control the levers of America's vast national security machine. As in our GOP list, we have included only individuals with a reasonably clear party affiliation, regardless of the authority their office gives them (sorry Gen. Petraeus) -- and, of course, many of those with extraordinary influence aren't in government at all. Here, then, is the FP 50, Democrat edition -- the behind-the-scenes, in-the-media, and at-the-podium A-listers of American foreign policy.
Tom Donilon may keep a relatively low profile, but make no mistake: This backstage player is perhaps his party's most influential voice on international affairs, with both the ear of the president and hands-on ownership over the foreign-policy process. A longtime Democratic operative with close ties to Vice President Joe Biden, Donilon made his fortune as a legal advisor to firms including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and a lobbyist for Fannie Mae. He joined the Obama administration as the quintessential gray man, a staffer renowned for his careful attention to process, but became national security advisor in 2010 after the resignation of Gen. James Jones, with whom he had reportedly clashed. Now, his fingerprints can be found everything from China policy to counterterrorism to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he argued should be speeded up. He wrote the memo to the CIA formally authorizing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and reportedly led a team of U.S. officials to consult Israeli intelligence in Jerusalem before the joint cyber attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities. However, some charge that he may have spilled a bit too much about such operations to journalists. One advisor to Mitt Romney's campaign has gone as far as to directly accuse Donilon of leaking classified information. Some reports have put him on Obama's short list to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, but the leaks flap could make Senate confirmation impossible.
As the U.S. military moves toward a smaller, leaner force, it is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who wields the scalpel, slicing and dicing Pentagon programs to save an estimated $490 billion over the next decade. As CIA director before his move to the Pentagon, Panetta oversaw the raid that killed bin Laden, handing Obama his signature foreign-policy achievement, and he jealously guarded his agency's turf against an attempt by Dennis Blair, then the director of national intelligence, to exert authority over the CIA. As the head of the largest federal agency, Panetta is a Washington player simply by virtue of his title, but his deep ties on the Hill and in the Obama administration make him one of the few bureaucrats with sway in nearly every part of the government. During his tenure at the Defense Department, Panetta has lobbied Congress hard to reduce cuts to the defense budget and has worked to implement the so-called pivot to Asia by shifting Navy ships to the Pacific. On Iran, Panetta has engaged in a careful piece of brinksmanship, working privately to head off a strike by Israel while talking a tough line publicly and saying that all options remain on the table. Over the course of his nearly five-decade career in Washington -- which he came to as a Republican -- Panetta has served in Congress, run the Office of Management and Budget, and worked as White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. That kind of resume has made the colorful Italian-American -- who kicked off his tenure as defense secretary by telling Iraq to "damn it, make a decision" on America's troop presence -- one of the most influential of Washington insiders.
Denis McDonough is both gatekeeper and confidant for President Obama when it comes to foreign policy. The former football safety at Saint John's University in Minnesota and House foreign affairs staffer is said to be so close to the president "that colleagues -- even his superiors -- often do not make a major move without first checking with him." McDonough, a fiendish late-night Blackberry user, is also known for his occasional saltiness: Before last year's White House Hanukkah party, for instance, he told a group of Jewish leaders that he was "really pissed off that there are people out there who doubt our resolve to stop Iran." McDonough was one of the chief architects of the 2009 surge that sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.