Hillary Clinton left Pennsylvania this week not only with a solid primary victory, but also an emerging doctrine on how to contain Iran.
In several high-profile appearances during the past week, starting with the televised debate April 17 on ABC, Clinton advocated an aggressive Cold War-style security umbrella to deter Iran from launching a nuclear attack against Israel or any other U.S. ally.
The New York senator and Democratic presidential hopeful said repeatedly that a nuclear strike from Iran would be met with “massive retaliation,” and suggested that she had in mind a U.S. nuclear response.
Clinton put forth the idea of a U.S. security umbrella during the debate after being asked by co-moderator George Stephanopoulos how she would respond to an Iranian attack against Israel.
“We should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel,” she said. “Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region.”
The comments originally received relatively minor attention, lost in the uproar over what critics described as a long string of “gotcha” questions posed by the ABC moderators having little to do with actual policy positions. But as Clinton fleshed out her comments in subsequent interviews with ABC and MSNBC, the issue began to attract more attention — and criticism in some liberal circles.
On the day before Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary, when asked in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” to clarify her remarks, Clinton said that America would respond with an “attack” against Iran and stressed that the United States had the ability to “obliterate” the Islamic Republic.
Later in the day she told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that as president, she would make clear to Iranian leaders that “their use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States.”
In the interview, Clinton rejected the view that Iranian leaders are “willing to become martyrs” and hence cannot be deterred by military threats.
Such specifics about how to deal with Iran have been absent from the campaign in both parties. Aside from saying that no options will be taken off the table, including the nuclear one, most candidates have shied away from doomsday prophecies about what would happen if Iran ends up with weapons of mass destruction.
In their respective responses to a recent Simon Wiesenthal Center questionnaire, all three candidates avoided issuing a concrete threat of military action when discussing how to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) confined his prescription to further sanctions. Clinton and her Democratic rival, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), issued similar calls for tough sanctions, but also stressed the need for direct diplomacy.
In the ABC debate, Obama repeated the familiar bromides when he offered the first response to the question from Stephanopoulos.
“I will take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them from using nuclear weapons or obtaining nuclear weapons, and that would include any threats directed at Israel or any of our allies in the region,” he said. “An attack on Israel is an attack on our strongest ally in the region, one that we — one whose security we consider paramount — and that would be an act of aggression that we, that I would consider an attack that is unacceptable, and the United States would take appropriate action.”
Clinton responded by invoking the threat of “massive retaliation.” Following a 1954 speech by then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the term has generally been understood as including nuclear weapons, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Clinton aides, apparently squeamish about alienating the party’s dovish base, in subsequent days insisted she was not necessarily referring to nuclear retaliation, though her later comments to ABC and MSNBC suggested that she was not heeding their concern. A top aide to Clinton told JTA that she mentioned massive retaliation as a possibility, not a certainty.
In any case, said Lee Feinstein, the Clinton campaign’s national security director, the critical point was Clinton’s proposal to extend the nuclear umbrella throughout the Middle East, as the United States had done for Europe during the Cold War.
“What she is communicating, and the policy she is outlining, is that Iran will not be able to intimidate its neighbors and that this would be part of a broader policy of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and shoring up and preserving the integrity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime,” Feinstein told JTA.
An Obama aide said such prescriptions handed the Iranians a victory by presuming that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons status was inevitable.
“Senator Obama has been very clear throughout this campaign that he will do everything in his power to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and that all options are on the table, including military options,” Dan Shapiro, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign, told JTA. “He wonâ€™t concede the failure implicit in the question, that Iran will get nuclear weapons. Engaging in these hypotheticals gives Iranians the wrong impression that we do concede that failure.”
Clinton’s willingness to tackle the debate question in such a specific manner appears to mark a reversal on her part.
As Jake Tapper of ABC News noted on his blog, Clinton was highly critical of Obama last summer over his public insistence that as president he would order strikes against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan — with or without the Pakistani government’s permission.
“So you can think big, but remember, you shouldnâ€™t always say everything you think if youâ€™re running for president because it has consequences across the world,” she said during a debate in August. “And we donâ€™t need that right now.”
And in a recent interview with Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent — just a few weeks before last week’s ABC debate — Clinton refused to address the “hypothetical question” of what she would do if Tehran gained nuclear capability in the next four years.
While Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists in the United States stress the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, many of them also share Clinton’s view that Iran’s theocracy may be sensitive to threats of massive military strikes and long for explicit declarations along the lines issued by the New York senator.
In a meeting last week with the Senate Democratic leadership, Jewish organizational leaders — particularly David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director — stressed the need to contain Iran.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chaired the meeting, said she heard the message, but reminded the Jewish media in a conference call that Congress would want to oversee any dealings with Iran, given the unfurling fiasco in Iraq.
“We have shown through our congressional resolutions that Congress needs to play a vital role as we go forward with Iran, and certainly in terms of new military action, that is something that Congress should be involved in,” said Stabenow, who has endorsed Clinton.
In the debate, which otherwise was notable for regurgitating controversies and rumors about Obama, Clinton underscored another difference with her Democratic rival — she pledged again not to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust and wishes Israel would not exist.
Obama has said he would meet with Ahmadinejad and other rogue leaders in his first year as president.