WASHINGTON -- In the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War six years before haunted her on the campaign trail. It put her in stark contrast with then-Senator Barack Obama, who touted his foresight in opposing the ill-fated war. But if Clinton was scarred by the perception that her foreign policy agenda is too hawkish for the Democratic Party, she showed no signs of it Wednesday morning in a speech detailing her plan to counter Iran after the implementation of the nuclear deal.
While Clinton was instrumental in paving the road for the nuclear negotiations with Iran in 2012 and supports the accord reached between Iran, the U.S., and five world powers in July, she made clear on Wednesday at the Brookings Institution that she does not view the agreement as marking a shift in U.S.-Iranian relations.
“I don’t believe Iran is our partner in this agreement. Iran is the subject of the agreement,” Clinton said, using rhetoric that notably contrasts with that of the Obama administration, which has been consistenly cautious about not upsetting Iran.
Obama was hesitant to condemn the Iranian crackdown on protesters during the 2009 Green Revolution. The unrest erupted just as the Obama administration was quietly mulling outreach to the Iranians on the nuclear issue, and the president was mindful of the way a condemnation would sound in a country that views the U.S. as an arrogant superpower intent on regime change. The administration’s failure to take a more proactive role on behalf of the protesters was a mistake Clinton regrets, as she wrote in her memoirs and repeated in her speech Wednesday. “That won’t happen again,” she vowed.
Clinton’s message to the Iranians was clear: “The U.S. will never allow you to acquire a nuclear weapon,” she said Wednesday. “I will not hesitate to take military action if Iran attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon.
While Obama has always insisted that military action against Iran remained on the table, he generally avoided issuing what could be construed as an outright threat.
But the key to successful implementation to the Iran deal, Clinton argued, is showing the Iranians the U.S. is serious. "We should expect that Iran will want to test the next president. They will want to see how far they can bend the rules," she said in the speech. "That won’t work if I’m in the White House."
To show her seriousness, the former secretary of state suggested deploying additional U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf region and recommended that Congress “close any gaps” in the existing sanctions to punish Iran for any current or future instances of human rights abuses and support for terror.
Although the nuclear agreement allows for additional sanctions that are unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program, it also requires parties to avoid action “inconsistent with the letter, spirit and intent” of the deal. Since July, a handful of senators from both parties have said they are drafting new sanctions laws. Though the Obama administration has resisted additional sanctions during the implementation phase of the nuclear agreement, Clinton advised Obama to work with lawmakers to pass new laws.
While the speech focused on Iran, Clinton also addressed foreign policy elsewhere, highlighting areas in which she thought Obama was too hesitant to use military might to exert American influence abroad.
The administration’s decision to back down from threats to bomb Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2013 for his use of chemical weapons, an operation Clinton actively supported, “cost us,” she said -- though she conceded that the trade-off of getting Russian assistance to transfer the bulk of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal out of the country was a worthy endeavor.
As secretary of state, Clinton was an early supporter of arming and training members of the Syrian opposition to fight Assad, a plan that faced resistance out of concern that it would be difficult to appropriately vet fighters and ensure that weapons didn’t fall into the hands of extremists. Today, the program is off to a slow start, with only 54 graduates from the first class, several of whom scattered after coming under attack by an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. As commander-in-chief, Clinton would dramatically escalate the program, she said.
Clinton also criticized the Obama administration’s minimal efforts to contain Russia’s expansionist efforts in Ukraine since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. She put herself “in the category of people who wanted to do more in reaction to the annexation of Crimea," adding that the Russian government's objective is "to stymie, to confront, to undermine American power whenever and wherever they can."
Republicans have leveled similar criticism against Obama, accusing him of acquiescing to the Russians in exchange for their support in negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran.
For all the divergence between Clinton and Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric, there is minimal variance in their actual policy prescriptions -- a point most acutely emphasized in Clinton’s remarks on her commitment to Israeli security.
Clinton vowed to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge and suggested renewing its current security package (currently $3 billion a year in U.S. aid) this year rather than waiting until it expires in 2017 -- both non-controversial policies that would have the backing of any American president. But she add that she’d invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the White House within her first month in office, noting that “tough love” for the country is counterproductive because it invites other countries to delegitimize Israel.
The “tough love” comment was a direct jab at Obama, whose relationship with Netanyahu has frayed over the Israeli prime minister’s efforts to derail the Iran nuclear deal and his comments in March suggesting he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state. After the comments, which Netanyahu made on the eve of being re-elected, Obama said he would re-evaluate his approach to the two-state solution and hasn’t invited Netanyahu to the White House since.
“We have had honest disagreements about this deal; now is the time to come together,” Clinton said. “To the people of Israel, let me say, you’ll never have to question whether we’re with you, the United States will always be with you.”
Samantha Lachmann contributed reporting.
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