Iran Deal Trips Up Hillary Clinton’s Delicate Dance
The nuclear agreement is forcing the Clinton campaign to figure out how to tout her tenure as Obama’s first secretary of state while keeping the president’s mixed national-security record at arm’s length.
Hillary Clinton’s return to Congress on Tuesday was intended to be triumphant, an endorsement-gathering, troop-mustering campaign stop to preach her economic-reform platform to a choir of fellow Democrats. Then President Obama called late Monday with news about the nuclear negotiations with Iran: they’d reached a deal.
The agreement — of historic importance, and thus unavoidable — forces the Clinton campaign to reckon with the precise challenge it has so far largely dodged: How she will use her tenure as secretary of state and her complicated relationship with Obama in her bid to replace him at the White House? Full embrace, arm’s length, or something in between — maybe a fist bump?
Clinton did not respond to Defense One’s question after Tuesday’s Senate Democratic caucus meeting about whether she’d endorse the Iran deal. But 14 hours after it was announced, her campaign put out a lengthy statement whose nuance reflects its unique difficulty for her.
“I support the agreement because it can help us prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” she said. She even took partial credit; as Obama’s first secretary of state, she said, “I logged tens of thousands of miles and twisted a lot of arms to build a global coalition to impose the most crippling sanctions in history.” But all this came after caveats: “Signing is just the beginning. As President, I would use every tool in our arsenal to compel rigorous Iranian compliance … including, if necessary, our military options.”
Although Clinton responded more slowly than much of the 2016 presidential field, she provided more than bland support or blunt criticism by listing the consequent steps she’d take as commander in chief: She’d maintain sanctions for terrorism and other non-nuclear related activities, demand the return of U.S. citizens, and invite Israeli leaders to Washington to help heal a relationship that has frayed during the negotiations.
And she offered this reminder: “I am as familiar with Iranian behavior and the need to confront it as anyone.”
For Sanctions, Then Against Them, Then For Them
Clinton began her appearance on the Hill Tuesday in similar fashion, reminding fellow Democrats and former Senate colleagues how she helped get the international community on board with sanctions and then enforce them, according to senators in attendance. And while some gushed about her hours-long visit and her command of national-security issues, that effusiveness faded when asked about Clinton’s role in the Obama administration’s early opposition to the sanctions. As many of them know intimately, the White House lobbied hard, and unsuccessfully, to block the legislation that put some of the strictest sanctions in place.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., often mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick for Clinton, even though he was the first statewide official outside Illinois to endorse Obama in 2007, said hers is an important voice on Iran that is welcomed in Congress. “Look, she’s coming home,” Kaine said of her reception. “We all want a non-nuclear Iran and we all want to get there by diplomacy, and the other ways of getting there are not as good to contemplate...She wasn’t telling anybody else what to do, other than we should take our time.” But Kaine noted that both the Bush and Obama administrations opposed congressional efforts to pass legislation to sanction Iran.
Last year, Clinton bragged that when she was a senator from New York, she “voted for every sanction that came down the pike against Iran,” according to Michael Crowley of Politico. That included a 2007 proposal to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, a move Obama opposed. (Iran remains one of three countries on the U.S. list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.”) During their 2008 campaign, she called Obama’s pledge to engage Iran diplomatically without conditions “reckless and naive” and vowed to “totally obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel, comments that prompted Tehran to file a complaint at the U.N.
But after Obama became president, he appointed Clinton secretary of state, and together they fought sanctions legislation as it made its way through Congress. Clinton’s deputy wrote to then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, arguing that the measures could “weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts.” Despite their opposition, sanctions legislation passed unanimously in the Senate in 2010 and 2011 and Obama was forced into sign them into law. Today, he touts the sanctions regime as a signal achievement.
“Once the sanctions were in place,” Kaine said, “the Obama administration gets very high marks for implementing them, putting together the international coalition which was necessary for them to really bite, and she played an important role in that,” he said. “It was important for her to remind everybody that just didn’t happen by magic. It took a lot of shuttle diplomacy.”
He said Clinton described going to allies such as South Korea, Japan, and India and convincing them not to buy energy from Iran because it could lead to instability in the region. “How you get allies like that to comply with the sanctions regime voluntarily wasn’t easy,” he said.
And as she wrote in her memoir Hard Choices, Secretary of State Clinton kickstarted covert talks with Iran, through Oman, that eventually resulted in the groundbreaking 2013 phone call in which Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed to begin the talks that produced Tuesday’s deal.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who sits with Kaine on the Armed Services Committee and has also endorsed Clinton for president, said Tuesday, “She’s just very strong. She’s on fire. She’s really amazing.”
“She gave great context to how we got to this point, going through in some detail how hard it was to get everyone in the sanctions regime, ’cause obviously she was very involved in getting the sanctions in place in the first place that then brought Iran to the table,” McCaskill said, crediting Clinton without acknowledging the administration’s original opposition.
But McCaskill didn’t exactly describe the former secretary of state as an emissary for Obama’s achievement, saying she separated Iran’s challenges to the U.S. into “baskets of bad behavior.” “And we aren’t gonna take our eyes off the basket that remains, but if we can do something about the nuclear capability we all have an obligation to do that,” she said.
“I think that everyone’s gonna look at [the deal] very carefully anyway and she knows that,” McCaskill added. “But it was an impressive show of command of policy issues that we care about in our party” — namely, those outside of national security.
Clinton’s campaign has largely avoided focusing on the subject area thus far, banking on the issue’s lesser prominence for Democratic voters and likelihood of fading in importance as the election slogs on. But a greater emphasis on economic and social issues also has the added advantage of allowing Clinton to avoid the complications of her relationship to Obama and his national security strategy.
Clinton served four years in the cabinet of a president who beat her to the White House in part due to his steadfast opposition to his predecessor's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and her relative hawkishness — including on Iran. That experience gives her a greater depth on national security than nearly any other candidate in the race, which was expected to be a clear asset. But it also ties her to current global security crises that critics pin on Obama and a perceived lack of strategic coherence, in particular to check the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its growing influence in Afghanistan and North Africa.
Republican candidates have eagerly sought to tighten that connection in voters’ minds and turn Clinton’s experience into a liability. Nearly every GOP campaign stop is peppered with some variation on the "failures of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy.” Some candidates couldn’t even wait until the Iran deal came into existence before vowing to kill it. “We need to terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Monday.
But Kaine said, “I don’t think she needs to recalibrate,” alluding to her Republican rivals. “Sometimes you gotta talk about [national security] a lot more if people don’t necessarily know you’ve got the credentials. She’s got them.”