Over the past week or so, I’ve learned the hard way that making political predictions is – quite frankly – a mug’s game. Given the startling result of the “Brexit” referendum, based on a campaign that seemed to be driven more by nostalgia-infused pipe-dreams, xenophobia and outright racism, who can seriously rule out the possibility for a Trump presidency beginning on 20 January, next year?
However, even we accept that such a frightening prospect has at least some real potential, because Trump has been so inconsistent and erratic that it might as well be anyone’s guess what he would actually do in terms of Middle East policy (except be strongly pro-Israel, of course).
That leaves us then with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is clearly a formidable political force and arguably the best-qualified candidate for president in the history of the republic. As the first female president she would also represent the added bonus in the breaking of an antiquated taboo, though for many of her political opponents the democratic nominee is more obviously the continuity candidate. To them, she is the epitome of the beltway insider. A mainstay of the American political mainstream.
So supposing she does win, what will define Hillary’s approach to the Middle East in particular? Based on her record it seems likely that her policy towards the region will rest on three pillars:
- A departure from the Obama administration’s policies on conflicts in the region, including greater willingness to use military force to achieve the US’ goals;
- Continuity with the Obama administration’s diplomatic successes (particularly in terms of maintaining the deal of Iranian nuclear weapons); and
- An attempt to restore a more obviously friendly relationship between the US and Israel.
So how would this pan out in reality?
The Iran deal
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was intimately involved in the negotiations that ultimately led to the deal with Iran over ending its nuclear programme. Though she wasn’t in office at the time the deal was signed she strongly endorsed it in a speech at the Brookings Institution – a prominent think tank – in September last year. She told the audience:
Either we move forward on the path of diplomacy and seize this chance to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon or we turn down a more dangerous path leading to a far less certain and riskier future. That’s why I support this deal. I support it as part of a larger strategy toward Iran.
Though here speech also included some caveats, in particular she suggested that the broader policy of containment, which has defined the US’ approach to Iran ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, should continue. This would be in an effort to ensure that, despite abandoning some of sanctions (that had exacted an enormous cost on the civilian population) the US would not inadvertently enable Tehran to work against its interests elsewhere in the region. “There is,” she argued, “absolutely no reason to trust Iran.”
However, while some commentators have praised this partial distancing of the candidate from the current administration’s policy as a savvy way of ensuring that Tehran will believe in the potential “snap back” of sanctions should things begin to go array, there is reason to believe that Clinton is already quite committed to maintaining the deal.
In particular, this is because leaked e-mails have recently been revealed that Clinton herself gave strong backing to one of the key architects of the deal, Wendy Sherman, for a promotion to undersecretary of state for political affairs and it is likely that Sherman, who was also part of the Bill Clinton administration, would stay on if Hillary moved into the White House.
If its not war with Iran though – which is more of a possibility under Trump – then that doesn’t mean that a Hillary presidency would represent some kind of move towards pacifism. Instead, it has already become quite widely known that the Democratic nominee favours a generally more hawkish line on foreign policy.
Indeed, as Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Clinton was apparently responsible for pushing for more forceful interventionism towards Syria and was a cheerleader for the war in Libya. All this, alongside her – now infamous – US Senate vote for the Iraq war in 2003, reveals that the next President Clinton might be far more inclined to use military force in office.
However, what is the underlying philosophy here? The fact that both recent Democrat and Republican administrations have used military force in different ways, and with different effects, suggests that we can’t really learn much from hawkishness alone.
Indeed, while the Obama administration has sought to scale back the US military’s activity abroad – through the withdrawal of troops, the dampening down of rhetoric and greater reliance on indirect tactics such as drone strikes and mass intelligence gathering – this only represents partial de-escalation from an enormously interventionist starting point created by George W. Bush. In reality, the US’ global military footprint is still colossal.
Thus it is extremely telling that, in the view of the Clinton camp, even such global military dominance could even be considered subdued. As an alternative then, Clinton may seek to chart a path that is less energetic than during the Bush-era’s exuberance for military force and yet still more forceful than under Obama.
She is, it seems, likely to advocate for a kind of liberal interventionism. Indeed, based on her record, and perhaps the lessons from her husband’s failures and apparent successes in office, inclined to see the US military as the tip of the spear; a powerful instrument that – when used in harmony with other elements of her administration’s tool-set – is a means to try and shape the world to better reflect her values.
As Glenn Greenwald recently explained, one of Clinton’s most likely picks for secretary of defence, Michèle Flournoy, has already suggested that the future administration would become more directly involved in the war in Syria. In particular, US troops would “push President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces out of southern Syria” and there would be “more American boots to fight the Islamic State in the region,” using another name for Daesh.
Making up with Bibi
However, if there is one place where the old values vs. interests calculation seems to lose any meaning, then it is in terms of the US’ relationship with Israel. Under Obama the level of the US’ frustration with Israel’s current government has reached such a level that the White House has all but given up on negotiations all together. (Let us not forget though that the “negotiations” they were pursuing were never likely to lead to any kind of meaningful independence for Palestinians, so it’s perhaps not such a great loss).
Bill Clinton apparently felt similarly about Benjamin Netanyahu while the latter was in his first term as prime minister of Israel, famously asking: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” after his first meeting.
Yet in spite of these frustrations, both Democratic administrations continued to support Israel with vast quantities of aid and with, virtually, carte blanche diplomatic cover. It is likely that Hillary will do the same.
There is, after all, little for her to gain by taking a hard line against Tel Aviv in the short term and – even if she did hope to move in the other direction on the issue (and there is no reason to believe that there is) – who is there to talk to on the other side? The majority of the US establishment would have no truck with any moves to re-engage Hamas and any such move would be resisted by Egypt’s neo-fascist dictatorship. On the other hand Mahmoud Abbas is a completely lame duck that commands the respect of virtually no one either inside or outside of the occupied territories.
For a new President Clinton, the path of least resistance on Palestine-Israel is one that reinforces the status quo. Indeed, as one report from the influential Centre for New American Security (a think tank chaired by the aforementioned – potential Clinton Pentagon Chief –Michèle Flournoy) the US’ approach to the conflict prioritises Israel’s security interests above all else in the pursuit of a superficial peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Overall then, who ever wins the next election in the US, there is little chance of improving circumstances in terms of Middle East policy. Under Trump – almost anything is possible and – like in a horror movie – the suspense and the potential for the unknown is frightening. However, for the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, greater clarity brings little extra comfort.