When I first heard Hillary Clinton had promised to annihilate someone, I assumed the chosen target was Barack Obama.
by Philip Stephens
Well before this week’s Pennsylvania primary it was obvious that Mrs Clinton would leave no missile unfired in her quest for the Democratic nomination. If the party was caught in the thermonuclear blast, so be it. Better mutually assured destruction than surrendering her claim on the White House.
On closer inspection, though, this time Mrs Clinton was aiming her Minutemen at Iran. She had been asked what she would do if that now infamous 3am call to the White House told of a nuclear attack on Israel. “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran,” she told ABC television. “We would be able to totally obliterate them.”
First things first. She has yet to dispose of Mr Obama. Of course, Mrs Clinton’s reinvention of herself as the mad general in Dr Strangelove is not unconnected to this ambition. Her comments on Iran were all of a piece with the effort to undermine Mr Obama’s national security credentials.
Mrs Clinton’s latest television advertisement features, among others, Osama bin Laden. It ends with a rhetorical question: “Who do you think has what it takes?” Certainly not, voters are invited to conclude, an effete and elitist senator from Illinois with Hussein as a middle name.
We all know, after all, how Mr Obama would deal with America’s enemies. While Mrs Clinton was reaching for the president’s nuclear football, Mr Obama would actually be taking tea with Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president. Has not he admitted as much? Mrs Clinton mocks such naivety. Curiously, the lesson she draws from the past eight years is that the only language these tyrants understand is American military might.
In this, Mrs Clinton is deploying against Mr Obama the electoral strategy that George W. Bush used to destroy John Kerry in 2004. Thus she has also suggested that John McCain, the Republican nominee, would make a better commander-in-chief than her Democratic rival. Mr McCain, we know, thinks the only thing worse than war with Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran. He has yet to explain how bombing Tehran would prevent it from getting a nuclear capability.
There is a kinder interpretation of Mrs Clinton’s words. In threatening Iran with a nuclear winter, it might be said, she was simply reasserting the doctrine of deterrence that saw the US through the cold war. If Tehran got the bomb, it needed to know better than to use it. And Israel has long been accorded a special place under America’s nuclear umbrella.
In one respect, she is right. If it turns out – and it may – that nothing can dissuade Tehran from joining the nuclear club, then the US will need to devise a deterrence strategy. I would hazard a guess, though, that it will be something more sophisticated than a blanket threat to eviscerate 70-odd million Iranians. We have left behind that period of history when it was deemed reasonable to visit the sins of tyrannical rulers on entire nations.
The worrying implication of Mrs Clinton’s statement is that it in effect rules out any prospect of negotiations with Tehran: why would you talk to the mullahs if you can threaten Iran with evisceration if it ever used weapons of mass destruction? There are several answers. Among the obvious are the risk of miscalculation in Tehran, of a pre-emptive strike by Israel, and a confrontation between Iran and its Arab neighbours.
One thing is certain: if Iran does build the bomb, it will start a nuclear arms race in the region. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, as we were reminded this week, Syria are already on the starting blocks. Others are one step behind. Presumably, Mrs Clinton would be ready to obliterate all of them. Just think about what that would do to the price of oil.
Mrs Clinton’s mistake – shared with Mr McCain – is to pose a simple choice for America and its allies: a military strike to delay Tehran’s present programme, or a policy of deterrence once it has acquired the bomb. Mr Obama happens to be right. There is a third option: talks.
This does not mean that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad should be feted at the White House next January. It does imply that Mr Bush’s successor must own up to the geopolitical realities of the region. Beyond the ranks of neo-conservatives, every serious foreign policy practitioner in Washington I have met believes that the next president should explore the possibility of negotiations.
However odious the present regime in Tehran, the US cannot simply deny Iran’s role as a significant regional power. Nuclear weapons aside, the new president will discover soon enough how easily Iran can disrupt American policy in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan. As one senior official in the present administration told me: “We have to deal with Iran because it’s there; and we have to talk about a lot more than uranium enrichment.”
What this official meant is that the US cannot extricate itself from Iraq or get its way on Afghanistan unless it acknowledges Iran’s legitimate security interests – and its aspirations to be treated as an important regional player. By marching to Baghdad, he might have added, the US has made Iran at once more powerful and more dangerously insecure.
Few of the experts I have spoken to believe that a “grand bargain” with Tehran is there simply for the taking. That does not exclude the possibility of an agreement on the nuclear issue and, eventually, a wider understanding. Thomas Pickering, a wise and experienced former US diplomat, has made the point well.
Mr Pickering is among a group of US policy experts who have been meeting Iranian policy advisers and academics privately for the past several years in an effort to break the nuclear impasse. The American experts have put forward a proposal that would allow Iran to continue uranium enrichment under multilateral supervision. There are enough common interests, they have concluded, to make the effort to reach such a deal worthwhile.
Mrs Clinton’s campaign tactics suggest she thinks otherwise. Talking, it seems, is for softies. Part of me agrees with James Carville, the erudite Clinton camp rottweiler. Writing on these pages he has poured scorn on those who whine about the rough-and-tumble of politics. Campaigns sort out the tough from the weak. Politicians must be tested.
To my mind, that is all fine. As long, that is, as Mr Carville also agrees that the other purpose of the nomination contest is to separate the honest from the dishonest.
The Financial Times