Thursday, April 24, 2008

Clinton and Iran

I guess it's not news that press coverage of politicians named Clinton is not the sharpest. At least some of that applies to the hype around Hillary Clinton's recent statement about Iran and Israel. From Clinton says US would 'obliterate' Iran by Daniel Dombey Financial Times 04/22/08:

Hillary Clinton warned on Tuesday the US would "obliterate" Iran if it used nuclear weapons against Israel, in comments that could foreshadow a tough new doctrine of deterrence towards the Islamic republic.

"I want the Iranians to know that, if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," Mrs Clinton said in response to a question about a possible Iranian nuclear assault on Israel. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

Mrs Clinton’s remarks – on the day of the Pennsylvania primary – highlight the national security issues she claims to be more qualified to deal with than Senator Barack Obama, her Democratic rival. She is also running a television advertisement featuring Osama bin Laden and combat scenes to stress such issues.

But her remarks come as consensus increases in the US that there is little Washington can do to stop Iran moving closer to nuclear capability and that current policy may be outdated. (my emphasis)

Now, the quoted sentence, "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them," doesn't in my mind equate to the quoted in the lede paragraph, "Hillary Clinton warned on Tuesday the US would 'obliterate' Iran if it used nuclear weapons against Israel".

I'll say below why I think the statement was ill-advised. But the much more obvious reading to me of the "obliterate" comment is that she is saying that the US has the ability to deter a nuclear attack.

The Guardian 'Obliteration' threat to Iran in case of nuclear attack by Ewen MacAskill 04/23/08 quotes her this way:

In an interview with ABC's Good Morning America, Clinton was asked what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.

She replied: "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them. That's a terrible thing to say but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic."
This statement by MacAskill strikes me as odd, at the very least imprecise:

US policy, whether Republican or Democrat, is to retaliate with nuclear weapons against anyone launching a nuclear strike against Israel.
But he continues:

In spite of Clinton's harsh words yesterday, both she and Obama have said on the campaign trail they would like to begin fresh negotiations with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme. Obama has gone further by saying he would like to speak face to face with the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while Clinton has suggested a more cautious approach, with strict conditions agreed beforehand.

Obama, responding to Clinton's interview, said: "One of the things that we've seen over the last several years is a bunch of talk using words like 'obliterate'. It doesn't actually produce good results. And so I'm not interested in sabre-rattling."
Calling it saber-rattling is a fair enough criticism.

Robert Scheer, who seems to be desperately trying to find some redeeming value in John McCain, goes much further when he writes in Clinton Threatens to 'Obliterate' Iran 03/23/08:

Seizing upon a question as to how she would respond to a nuclear attack by Iran, which doesn't have nuclear weapons, on Israel, which does, Hillary mocked reasoned discourse by promising to "totally obliterate them," in an apparent reference to the population of Iran. That is not a word gaffe; it is an assertion of the right of our nation to commit genocide on an unprecedented scale. (my emphasis)
Can we please get a grip here?

Opponents of attacking Iran now, opponents both in the US and abroad, including me, have been saying for years now that we should be seeking peaceful alternatives to Iran developing nuclear weapons capability. And most of us have also been saying that even if Iran got nuclear weapons, the United States and Israel should rely on deterrance rather than preventive war to deal with the problem. And, in any case, Pakistan is a more significant proliferation risk than Iran, important as the latter is.

But Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, at least 200 warheads by the most conservative credible estimates. So I think it's a mistake for Clinton to suggest that the US should automatically include Israel under its own nuclear umbrella for deterrence purposes against a nuclear-armed Iran. A situation which won't present itself for years yet, if it ever does. And a sensible US policy could go a very long way toward making sure it doesn't arise. But why should we place Israel under the US nuclear umbrella in defense against a regional threat that Israel itself has the capabilities already in place to deter on their own? It makes no strategic sense, so far as I can see.

It's also worth keeping in mind, in these days where both parties for somewhat different reasons feel obliged to declare their intense support for Israel, that Israel and the United States do not have a mutual defense treaty. The US has suggested such a treaty in the past. But Israel has declined, because a mutual defense treaty would require Israel to define precisely the borders which would be defended.

Yes, Clinton made a statement that I think was unwise. But "an assertion of the right of our nation to commit genocide on an unprecedented scale"?!? By Apollo the far-shooter, where does something like that come from?

Juan Cole also gets similarly carried away in his Informed Comment post of 04/23/08, calling Clinton's statement a "chilling contemplation of genocide against 70 million Iranians in retaliation for something they would and could have had no part in deciding." But at least he goes on observe, "Mutual Assured Destruction is a security underpinning of the contemporary nuclearized world, but it is a diplomatic weapon that works best by allusion."

Again, I think Clinton was being excessively belligerent in her reference. And I think American politicians and officials should be very careful in how they talk about extending the American nuclear umbrella. And in this case, I don't see that it's necessary at all. Because Israel is capable of maintaining nuclear deterrence against an attack from Iran with its own nuclear arsenal.

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