Now that summer is unofficially over, the serious part of the 2016 presidential campaign has started, bringing us a most interesting foreign-policy speech from the embattled Democratic frontrunner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She explained her position on the Iran nuclear deal.
On the day Clinton went to the Brookings Institution to speak about the nuclear agreement, a Pew poll showed that the number of Americans who support the deal negotiated by the Obama administration has collapsed, dropping to a paltry 21 percent. That’s a stunningly low number, considering the full-court press from the president and his top aides.
And yet, the nuclear agreement, unlike the presidential election, is not up for a popular vote. The president has already secured enough support in the Senate to ensure he can move forward.
For Clinton, staking a clear position on the controversial pact presented a challenge. She had already expressed her support; in fact, indirect talks with Iran started while she was secretary of State. But the majority of Americans oppose the agreement — which remains a profoundly, troublingly flawed document — on grounds that, despite being dismissed by the president, are not purely political.
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The speech accomplished its goals. In fact, Clinton’s position is so smartly argued that it shows Obama could have done a much better job of defending his stance from critics.
She managed to defend the agreement without smearing the critics as politically motivated warmongers. Where Obama rejected the criticism as unfounded, Clinton addressed the weaknesses in the deal, not dismissing them as false or exaggerated, but proposing a plan to counteract them.
She successfully threaded the needle, speaking strongly in support but recognizing the need to bolster the deal with a plan of action. Instead of smearing critics, she offered reasons why they could trust her to keep the country safe despite the agreement’s flaws.
She said she expects Iran will try to cheat and, taking a turn on Reagan’s famous philosophy on deals with the USSR, she said: “My approach will be distrust but verify.” And using language that Obama tries to avoid, she said, “I will not hesitate to take military actions if Iran attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
As president, she said, she would enact a comprehensive policy to tackle Iran’s misbehavior in the region, noting that its fingerprints can be found in most conflicts in the region.
She would not only work more closely with Israel and with Arab Gulf allies with a “robust military presence” in Persian Gulf waters, she said, but would take action to choke Iranian military and financial support for Hezbollah, and pressure countries that stop the “false distinction” between Hezbollah’s political and military wing. “If you’re part of Hezbollah, you’re part of a terrorist organization.”
She vowed to take a forceful stand against Iran’s human-rights violations, saying she wished the United States had given stronger support to Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators in 2009.
And she made a detailed vow to strengthen relations with Israel, boosting development of defensive weapons, working closely together in a number of areas. She declared, “I believe in my core that Israel and America must stand side by side,” and added that she would not support the deal if she didn’t think that, along with a comprehensive enforcement strategy, it will make Israel safer.
Then she took a sharp rhetorical departure from her former boss. She qualified her assessment that the deal is good for Israel’s security, with a remarkable statement: “I say that with humility. I’m not Israeli. I don’t know what it’s like to live under constant threat from your neighbors in a country where the margin of error is so thin.”
Of course, Clinton is running for president. Her words are meant to bolster electoral support, and anything could happen if she’s elected. But the speech was a success. It managed to tell the party base and supporters of the deal that she stands with them.
But she did not push away the almost 80 percent of Americans who are not convinced the nuclear pact will make the world safer. And she did that with nuance, showing she understands this is not black and white, despite what the tone of the debate has suggested.
She showed respect for those who have concerns and, while showing loyalty to the president, she drew a sharp distinction, reminding us that she is more hawkish and intends to bring a more muscular foreign policy to the White House.
It was a worthy opening of the foreign policy debate for the fall campaign.