With the announcement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party after scoring the 2383 magic number, her foreign policy record will be at the core of the general elections debate between now and November 8th.
Hillary Clinton has been labeled as “hawkish” and military-driven in the Middle East, but in reality she is neither and will likely pursue a centrist approach closer to Presidents George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and to some aspects of the Barack Obama doctrine.
As Secretary of State from 2009-2013, Clinton signed on to the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, opened the door to talks with the Taliban, started secret negotiations with Iran, helped broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, drove the NATO air intervention in Libya, and led people-to-people initiatives across the region.
These positions, especially the military disentanglement from Iraq, opposition to ground troops in Syria or Libya, and readiness to talk with the Taliban and negotiate with Iran, dismantle the narrative of labeling Hillary Clinton a hawk or as a militaristic figure in approaching the Middle East.
Not a hawk
Political labels have unfortunately come to define and frame the policy debate around the 2016 candidates, often accompanied with slogans, inaccurate characterizations that have become a substitute for a real conversation.
These labels were flawed in portraying Obama as an anti-war candidate in 2008, as his legacy will be associated with the highest use of drone attacks, an intervention in Libya, and an extension of the war in Afghanistan. The business of labeling is also off the mark in viewing Hillary Clinton as a hawk and interpreting her positions in binary terms on the Middle East.
Those hoping for a return of the George W. Bush neoconservative wing in a Hillary Clinton Presidency or for a verbatim continuation of the Barack Obama policy, will likely be disappointedJoyce Karam
Hillary Clinton’s record from voting for the war on Iraq to supporting the intervention in Libya is almost identical to her successor Secretary of State John Kerry, who sponsored as Senator a resolution supporting the Libyan war and along with Vice President Joseph Biden voted the Iraq war. Yet, only one of them is regarded as a “hawk”, and viewed in militaristic terms on foreign policy.
Clinton’s close relation with the US military and former Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, should not be equivalent to a militaristic policy approach in the Middle East. Her objection to sending troops to Iraq, Syria and Libya, and strong embrace of the Iran nuclear deal, puts her at a similar footing as Obama.
While she holds a more aggressive stance in confronting Russia’s and Iran’s behavior in Syria, Iraq and Eastern Europe, Clinton is nowhere close to the neoconservative school of thinking that rejects both the Iran nuclear deal and the START treaty with Russia.
During Obama’s first term, Clinton was branded as the “designated yeller” at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and someone who confronted his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in calling publicly for settlement freeze. While her campaign rhetoric is strongly pro-Israel, her positions on rejecting settlement expansion and opposing moving the US embassy to Jerusalem make her more of a traditionalist than a hawk on this issue.
Clinton’s approach of “smart power” in conducting foreign policy predicts a centrist and pragmatic strategy abroad if she were to be elected President in November. Her long list of advisers, which includes top negotiator with Iran, Wendy Sherman, former Undersecretary at State, Nicholas Burns, her close aide Jake Sullivan and former State Department official and vocal voice on civil society and human rights in the region, Tamara Wittes, suggest a middle of the road approach that prioritizes engagement and visible US diplomatic presence.
What to expect
Those hoping for a return of the George W. Bush neoconservative wing in a Hillary Clinton Presidency or for a verbatim continuation of the Barack Obama policy, will likely be disappointed. Clinton’s approach to the Middle East will not bear resemblance to Bush’s freedom and democracy agenda, but will bring a more hands on and people-to-people relations than that of Obama.
Clinton’s visit to Tahrir square in 2011, and town hall meetings across the Middle East, promise a return for people to people initiatives in the Middle East. The former Secretary of State, if elected, will also pay more emphasis to issues related to human rights and press freedoms in the region, than the Obama or even Bill Clinton administrations.
While she is known for her good relations and personal interactions with regional leaders in meetings that would span over four or seven hours with GCC leaders and Netanyahu, Clinton will likely be more vocal about human rights violations. Nevertheless, a Clinton Presidency will bring more emphasis on personal relations in driving the regional agenda, something that has largely gone missing with the more aloof and dry style of Obama.
Today, there isn’t one Middle Eastern leader that has a close relationship with the White House. Even Jordan’s King Abdullah, a frequent guest of the administration, has criticized the President.
On policy, Clinton is likely to adhere to Obama’s strategic goals (fighting terrorism, combatting nuclear proliferation, securing Israel and strengthening allies) but with a larger umbrella, and with different emphasis on regional priorities. Reaching out to Iran will unlikely be high on Clinton’s list while implementing the nuclear agreement will be.
Countering Russia’s and Iran’s roles will, on the other hand, be more aggressive than Obama’s. Given Clinton’s relations, it won’t come as a surprise if she revisits the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks while possibly involving her husband and resurrecting the Arab Peace initiative.
All in all, a Hillary Clinton Presidency, if materialized, will bring forth a more robust, visible and complex centrist approach for the US leadership in the Middle East. It would employ more tools, including diplomatic and military pressure, than Obama, without going back to the George W. Bush template of high rhetoric and risky military projects.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on US policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam