Last night Hillary Clinton spoke at a dinner for the American Jewish Congress and continued her effort to attempt to craft a narrative in which her four years at the State Department are depicted as making her uniquely qualified for the presidency. The centerpiece of this argument is that during her time as America’s top diplomat she was a leader in the struggle to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This is a delicate task that demands both exaggerations and outright fibs, especially when it comes to her position on sanctions. It also requires her to both embrace President Obama’s foreign-policy record while at the same time position herself slightly to his right. But while her cheering section may be buying her sales pitch, a closer examination of what Clinton did on the issue undermines any notion that she was anything but an enabler of an Obama policy of engagement that has led to the current diplomatic dead-end.
Clinton’s claim is that her toughness toward Iran and diplomatic skill helped create the international sanctions that brought the Islamist regime to the negotiating table. Though she expressed some skepticism about Iran’s willingness to listen to reason, the former first lady endorsed the interim nuclear deal signed by her successor and agreed with Obama’s opposition to the passage of any more sanctions even if they would not be put into effect until after the current talks fail. But it’s no small irony that Clinton would be bragging about her tough stand on Iran in the same week that the blowup with Russia led to the almost certain collapse of the diplomatic solution that she had banked on.
It was Clinton, after all, who was the primary champion of the comical “reset” with Russia that convinced Vladimir Putin that the Obama administration could be discounted in conflicts involving his ambition to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But even more importantly, the conceit of Clinton’s efforts to build the international coalition for Iran sanctions was that she would be able to harness Russia and China to American foreign-policy objectives. That assumption has been blown out of the water by the conflict over Crimea. Any idea that Russia would stick with the West to pressure Iran to give up its drive for a nuclear weapon or keep them isolated via sanctions is no longer realistic.
Of course, Clinton’s boasts about her record on Iran sanctions are also misleading. Though it is true, as Clinton said yesterday, that she “voted for any sanction on Iran that came down the pipe” when she was in the Senate, like many of her other stands on Israel-related issues, that changed once she became secretary of state. While the administration now claims that it is these tough sanctions that enabled them to make diplomacy work with Iran, it should be remembered that Clinton and her boss President Obama fiercely opposed these same sanctions when Congress was considering them.
As much as she may be trying to differentiate herself from the incumbent while trying not to sound disloyal, an honest look at Clinton’s term at Foggy Bottom is not flattering. On the two issues that count most today—Russia and Iran—she must bear a great deal of the responsibility for the current mess. Even more to the point, she was as much a champion of Iran engagement as anyone else in the administration, a point that she conveniently omits from her resume, especially when speaking to pro-Israel groups.
A lot can and probably will happen on foreign policy in the two years between now and the 2016 presidential campaign. But the likely Democratic nominee must understand that events may ultimately make her record on Iran and Russia look even worse than it does today. On her watch, Iran moved closer to a nuclear weapon while Clinton earned frequent-flyer miles assembling a coalition in favor of weak sanctions dependent on her Russian reset partner for success. Though Democrats may not care much about her actual record, the facts about Iran and Russia hardly make for the sort of credentials that will enhance her chances of prevailing in a general election.