For all intents and purposes, the US Democratic Party nominating process is over. Hillary Clinton will be the party’s nominee in 2016. But unlike 1992, when her husband Bill ran for president and won, next year’s election will be run on a far more challenging foreign policy agenda. The long rhetorical knives of the Republican Party and their vast network of political action donors will be sharpened to pillory the ex-secretary of state over the dismal overseas record of her ex-boss, Barack Obama.
Hillary and Bill are in a tough spot. The Democratic Party of the 1990s was configured much more toward the center of the political spectrum than today’s progressive left-wing orientation. Bernie Sanders has driven the party away from both Wall St. and the old unipolar view of US commitment abroad. Obama has been a weak president, especially when it comes to Russia and Iran. Hillary will be judged by this weak Obama legacy. And in the Middle East and key parts of Europe, that policy appears to be in tatters. Obama claims that his major foreign policy achievement has been the Iran nuclear deal. But both Hillary and Bill are lawyers. They understand that the word “conditional” means neither acceptance of an agreement nor its final rejection. This possible acceptance or rejection is the old bargaining tool of the Persian Bazaar.
The master of such a bargain is none other than Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a letter to his puppet president, the ayatollah conditioned his acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal on many key points; points on which the Obama administration had already made vast concessions. But just like the old Middle East Bazaar, the deal is not concluded until the tea is served in Tehran, not at a diplomatic photo-op in Vienna. For the Iranians, the use of leverage never ends. They understand Obama’s and the Clintons’ predicament; the Middle East has become a political poison zone for a solid majority of the American voting population.
The Supreme Leader thinks he has the leverage, and he might. But just like the word “conditional”, the word “might” can be as elastic and slippery. The fact is that Hillary and Bill Clinton (the next secretary of state?) cannot now run away from the ayatollah’s new conditions. If they do that could ensure that Iranian possession of a deliverable nuclear warhead, sometime in the next eight to twelve years, was a distinct possibility. It would also ensure that the Democratic Party would be signing on to Iranian geopolitical hegemony throughout the Middle East. Obama will be gone in little over a year, but if he continues to weaken on Iran and the ayatollah’s new conditions, Hillary and Bill will have to dramatically swing back toward the political center. If they do not, the Clintons risk being outflanked by a Republican Party which would most certainly portray them as soft on potential Iranian nuclear weapons — weapons that could hit the US as well as Israel and other key allies. I can envision the negative political advertisements, the same kind of ads that defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964.
If the Clintons are lucky, Obama might take a strong stand on Iran’s conditional acceptance/rejection of the nuclear deal. But the Republican Party’s shot across the Obama-Clinton bow has already been sent. It didn’t take the Republican establishment long to start to publicize the new conditions. One of those conditions is the complete lifting (before the end of the year) of all sanctions, even those pertaining to Iran’s support for regional non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Obama has already assured Israel and the Sunni Arab states that once the nuclear deal had been negotiated to its legal conclusion, Iranian behavior within the region would be resisted by American action. Now the Supreme Leader of Iran is openly challenging that commitment.
Obama had always predicated his Iran nuclear negotiation on the premise of being separate from the regional geopolitical balance of power and Iran’s support for proxy war. This spurious position certainly has had its critics. Among the most influential were ex-Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. They both warned in April 2015 that such a separation in policy could not be sustained and would eventually lead to greater war and chaos within the region. Now the Iran Supreme Leader has gambled that Obama will not risk his so-called legacy nuclear deal in order to resist Iranian designs against Sunni Arabs and Israeli Jews. Will the ayatollah be right?
Hillary Clinton said in a 2014 interview with the Atlantic Magazine that the Obama motto of “not doing stupid things” was not a proper foreign policy organizing principle for a great nation like the United States. I couldn’t agree more. But given the movement to the left by the Democratic Party electorate, what could be a proper foreign policy organizing principle for the Clintons? Syria has become a stalemate and a quagmire of extremist politics and sectarian division. It now risks becoming a global superpower proxy war involving China, Russia and the US. Iran is counting on this scenario. The unipolar world of perceived US encirclement of China and Western advancement eastward toward Moscow has now been challenged by Putin and Beijing. This new global geopolitical situation places the Middle East within a much greater game. A game also being played out in the South China Sea and across the expanse of Europe. The Supreme Leader estimates that in this kind of world, he has the leverage.
The Bernie Sanders left-wing of the Democratic Party would have the US retreat from the Middle East. Whether or not this wing of the party would defend Eastern Europe through NATO action is also questionable. The same is true for Taiwan and America’s other East Asia allies. Wars cost money and the neo-con wars of Iraq and Afghanistan were very expensive. The US doesn’t have that kind of money any more. The last thing the bond market needs would be a huge spike in the US national debt. Remember, it was Bill Clinton who understood, more than anyone, that presidents are mere politicians, while the bond market is the “master of the universe”. Remember also that it was a chief Clinton aid who coined the 1996 election motto — “it’s the economy, stupid”.
So what are the organizing principles upon which a Hillary and Bill Clinton administration would operate? We all know what the Republicans will be advocating — a strong position against Iran and perhaps an even stronger one against a percieved aggressive Russia and China. But the prospect of an election being waged as a referendum on a second Cold War (or worse) vs. an extreme isolationism is hardly a palatable proposition. However when faced with two diametrically opposed choices, the best thing to do is to adopt the Yitzhak Rabin example. In 1992 Rabin understood (before anyone else) that Israel’s central strategic challenge was a region-wide balance against the potential power of Iran to achieve hegemony. He saw the Middle East as a choice between permanent war with the Palestinians or a regional balance with Sunni Arab states against Iranian aggression. Rabin chose peace.
Bill and Hillary Clinton were with Rabin, Arafat and Peres on the south lawn of the White House. And Bill Clinton is in Israel today to remember Yitzhak Rabin and his vision of peace. But Rabin was no advocate of the two-state solution. He was a Labor Party security hawk, whose believed that there is a third way when faced with two unpalatable choices. Rabin always said NO to a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River. But he was also negative with regards to incorporating the Palestinians into the Israeli body politic. Rabin’s third way was autonomy plus. The plus in this case was a kind of relationship whereby the Palestinians would govern themselves within an economic and potential political confederation with Jordan. Of course, Arafat was opposed to anything but an independent Palestinian state west of the river, as is Abbas today. But Rabin’s third way has other published alternatives, and that is the important point. Only a third way can lead us out of the Palestinian intransigence that we still find ourselves enmeshed in today. We must offer the PLO a new type of peace plan, within a regional peace structure, that they simply can’t refuse.
Rabin’s vision of peace between Sunni Arab states and Israel as a balance against Iran was prescient. But after twenty years of negotiations with the PLO, the Palestinians remain pro-Iranian wild cards. Israel would be defenseless without the Jordan River Valley in a region controlled by Iran. And that is precisely why an independent Palestinian state west of the river could never work. But some kind of new peace proposal must be put on the table in order to become the cement for a new regional Sunni Arab-Israeli architecture to balance Iran. Rabin’s third way could be updated and augmented to include a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, autonomy with joint sovereignty for the West Bank and a democratic federation with Jordan (historic eastern Palestine). The federation concept could either be as a true constitutional monarchy (British style) or as a republic. The choice would be up to the Palestinians and the King of Jordan.
But what then would be the third way for Hillary and Bill? The synthesis of a unipolar world or an isolationist America is a Rabin-like policy of global peace and superpower cooperation and coordination. The withdrawal of American troops from the Persian Gulf could be accompanied by a UN Security Council commitment to a zone of peace without nuclear weapons for the Middle East. The same is true for Europe. The end of NATO does not mean the end of Europe. On the contrary, Russia needs to be brought into an integrated all-European defensive armed force that threatens no nation. Meanwhile the reconfiguration of US forces in Asia is also long overdue. The US, Russia and China all need to be in a peaceful relationship — and the sooner the better. Hillary and Bill could become a forceful exponents of such a policy of peace.
As far as the Supreme Leader of Iran is concerned, Iranian nuclear ambiguity and regional hegemony are non-starters. Sino-Russian-American coordination of policy in the Middle East would mean thousands of UN troops on the ground in Syria in order to defeat ISIS and begin the transformational project of creating a secular, constitutional and pluralistic new government. No other prospect is feasible. Only a Security Council commitment to end the proxy war and to dismantle and demilitarize all non-state actors can work. Assad must eventually go, but so too must the Sunni extremists, Hamas and Hezbollah. Lebanon, Syria and Iraq must stay united and outside the orbit of any other regional state. The strict prohibition of war within the Middle East must be adhered to. The entire region should eventually become a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The Palestinians must be offered a new peace plan and not a West Bank state, which is their concept of step by step liberation. Instead true peace, which encompasses the total geographical area of the original Palestinian Mandate, necessitates a new and broader paradigm. Israel needs real security outside the prospect of nuclear weapons, as do all the states of the Middle East. Nuclear proliferation is the last thing this region needs.
As always American leadership and innovation will be needed if this project of peace is to succeed. But it will not be just the US who leads. The world must become a multipolar system for non-aggression and disarmament. That is, if the challenges of the 21st century are to be met. It is up to us elders to leave our children and grandchildren a peaceful world in which to be stewards of the L-ord’s natural and spiritual values. This project will involve many nations of the world. But the Clintons now have a great opportunity to make the next nine years into an enduring legacy. Yitzhak Rabin’s third way of peace should also become theirs. Neither isolationism nor a second Cold War will benefit anyone. These new and dangerous times require creative solutions. Only out-of-the-box thinking will suffice.