US elections 2008: Hillary Clinton's pledge to 'obliterate' Iran if it attacks Israel is unnecessarily bellicose
By Richard Silverstein
In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America today, Hillary Clinton pledged that if Iran launches a nuclear attack against Israel, the United States would retaliate against Iran. "I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," Clinton said. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."
Today promises to be a decisive moment in the Democratic primary campaign, as voters head to the polls in Pennsylvania. Clinton's comments this morning echo remarks she made last week in Philadelphia. There, during the presidential debate, Clinton came just short of promising a nuclear attack on Iran if it were to strike Israel or any of its other Arab neighbours.
According to the transcript this is how the exchange went:
George Stephanopoulos: "Senator Clinton, would you [extend our deterrent to Israel]?"
Hillary Clinton: "Well, in fact ... I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region."
On Warren Olney's To the Point radio show today, Barack Obama's Middle East adviser and former congressman Mel Levine noted that during the Eisenhower administration John Foster Dulles promised the same "massive retaliation" should the Soviet Union attack the US or its allies. This was widely understood as a threat of nuclear attack. Is this really the type of president Americans want? One who so demonises Iran that she's prepared to go to war at the first sign of conflict in the Middle East? Do we want to create a Middle East cold war like the one we had with the Soviets for four decades?
Equally troubling is the fact that Israel, in Clinton's conception, is merely an extension of the US - a member of the greater commonwealth, if you will. Of course, I find the notion of an Iranian attack on Israel disturbing as well. But the idea that we would react to an attack on Israel as if it were an attack on ourselves ties me up in knots.
We are not the same as Israel. We have our interests. Israel has its own. What if Israel attacks Iran first in an attempt to knock out its nuclear programme and Iran counterattacks? After all, Israeli government ministers have threatened a pre-emptive attack on Iran. In the event of such an assault, is Clinton then bound to retaliate massively against Iran though Israel was the aggressor? You can see where this is going, and it isn't any place good.
Clinton's threat was music to one Jewish group's ears: Aipac. She was practically channelling its talking points about Iran and the "existential threat" it poses to Israel. Her rhetoric was meant as red meat for Pennsylvania's Jews in the run up to the state's Democratic presidential primary. She believes they want to hear a battle cry against Iran. This, despite the fact that the latest American Jewish Committee annual opinion survey shows that Jews don't want to rattle sabres with Iran. They want negotiation instead. Of course, Clinton doesn't care so much what the average Jew thinks. She's playing to the Aipac donors and the Jewish PAC money which are more hawkish than the Pope - er, Ehud Olmert.
Compare Clinton's over-the-top response to Obama's modulated one during last week's debate:
Stephanopoulos: "Iran continues to pursue a nuclear option. Those weapons, if they got them, would probably pose the greatest threat to Israel. During the cold war, it was the United States' policy to extend deterrence to our Nato allies. An attack on Great Britain would be treated as if it were an attack on the United States. Should it be US policy now to treat an Iranian attack on Israel as if it were an attack on the United States?"
Obama: I have said I will do whatever is required to prevent the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons. I believe that that includes direct talks with the Iranians where we are laying out very clearly for them, here are the issues that we find unacceptable, not only development of nuclear weapons but also funding terrorist organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as their anti-Israel rhetoric and threats towards Israel. I believe that we can offer them carrots and sticks, but we've got to directly engage and make absolutely clear to them what our posture is.
"Now, my belief is that they should also know that 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."
Stephanopoulos: "So you would extend our deterrent to Israel?"
Obama: "As I've said before, I think it is very important that Iran understands that 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 I would consider an attack that is unacceptable, and the United States would take appropriate action."
Who would you want answering that phone at 3am? Trigger Finger Clinton? Or Deliberate Obama? A president who promises "massive retaliation" or one who promises the US "would take appropriate action"? And let's not make the mistake of thinking this is merely parsing words. Lately, we've had an administration willing to go to war at the drop of a hat. Lest you think that Clinton might not initiate a regional war if Israel is attacked, think again.
And if you read her response further, you'll see she advocates a regional security umbrella of nations opposed to Iran. An attack on any of them would be the same as an attack on the US. So now you have the US becoming the gendarme of the Middle East willing to go to battle at the least flare-up between Iran and any number of neighbours with whom it might have a dispute. That scares me.
One final note: debate moderator George Stephanopoulos makes a huge assumption in claiming Iranian nuclear weapons "would probably pose the greatest threat to Israel". The distinguished Israeli military analyst Martin Van Creveld has written in the Forward that Iran wants nuclear weapons to defend itself from attack by one of its immediate neighbours (remember the Iran-Iraq war of the late 1980s?). Israel is far back on the list of nations Iran is thinking of when it thinks of the reasons it needs such weapons.