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Hillary Clinton and Middle East politics

Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67, recently launched her campaign for next year presidential elections. The Democrat candidate adopted a slogan appealing to ordinary citizens “Everyday Americans need a champion. I want to be a champion.” In fact, the race to the White House usually focuses on domestic politics rather than foreign affairs. However, given US weight on the international stage, it is all too fair to wonder what Clinton’s approach to IR might be. I asked Roberto Menotti – Editor-in-Chief of Aspenia online and Deputy Editor of Aspenia, Senior Advisor at Aspen Institute Italia – about Clinton’s perspectives on the Middle East, in particular.

Let’s start recalling Clinton’s record on the Middle East: in 2002, sitting in the US Senate, she voted for the Iraq Resolution which authorised the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime; in 2011, as Secretary of State, she joined the interventionist front and urged NATO allies to support the rebels in Libya and launch air-strikes on Muammar Qaddhafi’s posts; while Obama was reluctant to take sides in Syria, she deemed it necessary to support the insurgents; IS advance in Syria and Iraq prompted her to adjust to Obama’s stand against US forces deployment on the ground. Why has she endorsed such an assertive, almost militarist, perspective?

When evaluating phase one of Hillary Clinton’s political career, we should put it into the historical context of post 9/11. At the time, the American leadership – as well as public opinion – shifted unswervingly to a proactive international stance and an interventionist attitude. Back then, standpoints such as ‘liberal interventionism’, ‘American exceptionalism’ and conservative ‘National security state’ merged, at least temporarily. Clinton’s choices on Iraq in 2002 and later on are not surprising nor abnormal: a centrist Democrat could easily adopt those viewpoints, and commonly did. We should not retrospectively project our historical judgement on the mistakes committed in Iraq – before, during and above all after Saddam Hussein’s elimination.

The time at the Department of State – especially after the 2011 Arab revolts – is different, and more relevant to the future. Those events marked the crumbling away of US Middle East policy, the Arab spring wiped away the foundations of US engagement in the region and Clinton had to adapt, endorsing a more interventionist position than her President. It was fair play since she voiced her opinion during the cabinet meetings without disavowing Presidential choices.

The Libyan case involved a direct but limited – both in time and intensity – operation. It stretched Obama’s tolerance for the use of force to its limits, in a situation that was no priority for Washington.

The debate on Syria is ongoing since 2011. Going in or not going in. There have been many afterthoughts and  fluctuations over Assad’s role, regional actors, the urgency to fight the ISIS. A lot of wavering and hesitation and an intense internal debate to which Clinton actively participates.

Obviously, as every US administration, Obama’s has different souls or currents with regards to foreign affairs and security. Hillary Clinton leads a solid ‘interventionist’ front that has Susan Rice and Samantha Power on board: a rather influential coalition (and an all-female one, as sexist commentators sarcastically notice.)

However, I wouldn’t define it as a ‘militarist tendency’. I think Clinton is prepared to use military force not only for priority national interests but for ‘secondary’ interests, as well. In other words, the exploitation of US military superiority is more discretionary in Clinton’s approach than it is in Obama’s. Arguably, that’s why they frequently held different views during Clinton’s two years as Secretary of State.

Do you think that this hawkish attitude is due, at least in part, to the innuendo that she’s ‘too weak for the White House‘?

I think it wasn’t during her time as Secretary of State, I guess she wasn’t yet considering running for Presidency. Obama was promptly re-elected in 2012 even though he was widely seen as little interventionist and even weak and uncertain in the domain of foreign affairs. The electorate wasn’t really interested in international politics until one or two years ago. On the other hand, Clinton seems to have benefited from her ‘hawk’ position. It is true, however, that the 2016 electoral campaign marks a new phase in which she has to confront hard-liners, since she has no apparent adversary as Democrat candidate.

Hillary Clinton considered Hosni Mubarak – an old friend – a stable US ally in the region. Benjamin Netanyahu – nicknamed ‘Bibi’ – is one of Clinton’s personal and institutional pillars in the area. How do these special relationships affect her position? Do you think it is fair to say that she’s inclined to support autocratic regime in order to save the status quo

Firstly, we should draw a line between two very different situations. Mubarak was a political friend of the whole Western world. And also a reliable partner for Israel. There was nothing peculiar in Hillary Clinton’s relations from that point of view. US security policy in the region relies on regimes with a questionable democratic record. It’s not about keeping the status quo, any more. It’s about managing a social and transnational change already set on motion, one that concerns the regional balance among the States. The point is driving this change away from dangerous drifts. The Middle East political agenda confronting Clinton is rather different than before 2011.

This is true for Israel, as well. Netanyahu has always been the natural counterpart for the conservative and even centrist establishment in the United States. He’s a controversial character, you need to deal with him as long as he’s his country’s leader, and you need to compromise with him on many regional issues (Iran, Palestinians, Sinai, south Lebanon, Golan.) If Clinton’s has some personal leverage on him, she could confront a more accommodating Israel. (No doubt, US relations with Israel deteriorated during Obama’s tenure.)  In any case, Iran’s rapprochement and the regional rearrangement will take priority.

Indeed, Clinton is manifestly close to Israel and a hard-liner toward Iran – in 2008, she got to the point of threatening the Islamic Republic with nuclear destruction in retaliation for an attack on Israel. Today, US-Iran agreement alters the system of alliances in the region: Israel and Saudi Arabia are deeply troubled by this rapprochement and the United States will need to find a working equilibrium. What are the prospects on this? How much do you think Clinton will deviate from Obama’s policy on Iran?

If there’s going to be a comprehensive agreement (beyond the memorandum of understanding just signed) on Iranian nuclear, Clinton would have to face – if she were elected – a rather complex implementation phase. She’d try to carve out as much room for manoeuvre as she can domestically: she’d have to confront a hostile Congress, still dominated by Republicans. She may demonstrate a less amenable approach and cut on concessions, but I think she knows all too well that there’s no manageable alternative to a progressive rapprochement, a military option would have considerable side-effects (something that doesn’t go unnoticed even amongst the like of James Baker – who is certainly no ill-equipped dove.)

The issue of the new regional order and the relative system of alliances is complicated by civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the situation is highly unstable: some sort of Sunni coalition – militarily and politically backed by the States – is emerging and being tested in Libya and Yemen but it’s doubtful whether it will hold, and Turkey’s position is still unclear. Clinton’s personal linkages might help her mediating in this rather fluid setting and reassure reluctant partners. In fact, I don’t think there’s a contradiction with this and the progressive engagement of Iran: the strength of Obama’s diplomatic effort, that would pass on to Hillary,  is that the United States are gaining more leeway and are less bound to stiff alliances (i.e. an uncritical support to Saudi and Israeli positions and a confrontational attitude toward Teheran.)

Clinton Foundation receives funds from the petro-monarchies. What are the political implications of such flows?

Just the same as it was the case with previous American administrations: petro-monarchies try to influence – legitimately, one may argue – US, European and other governments. Hillary Clinton makes no exception, plus she doesn’t need extra funds, she has an amazing capacity at raising money from domestic donors.

Lastly, the Obama Administration based its foreign policy on the ‘pivot to Asia’. Do you think Clinton would make a shift back to the Middle East?

I doubt it. A partial course correction is already on the way in the concluding phase of Obama’s tenure. The vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will set the mode of American future engagement in the Pacific well before the presidential elections. Clinton’s will have to define US role in East Asia in the context of the TPP while the rearrangement of the Middle East will continue to unfold – with difficulty and great uncertainty.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in ME

The original version of this article was published in Italian on L’Indro 22/04/2015

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