If there was ever a formal concession from the White House that its Iran policy has failed, it comes via the New York Times, which reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent rhetoric indicates that her views have prevailed over those of President Obama. The Times has decided that the debate between the two over the issue in the 2008 presidential primaries has finally been decided in favor of the more hawkish Clinton, who once vowed to “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel, as opposed to the man who beat her while advocating “engagement” with the Islamist regime. The paper is right to note the irony of Clinton’s more sensible 2008 stand being vindicated now that Obama’s fantasy foreign policy has proved a failure. But the administration’s recent tack to the Right with respect to Iran fails to reassure us for a number of reasons.
First, Obama’s year of engagement has done more damage than can be repaired by a couple of tough-sounding speeches by Hillary. The year wasted on a futile campaign of outreach strengthened Tehran and undermined, perhaps fatally, any support for tough sanctions, as the mantra of outreach from the White House propped up a growing Iran-appeasement lobby while undermining the forces for change inside that country. With China unalterably opposed to sanctions, there is no chance of getting UN backing for a tough policy — even if Russia goes along with Clinton, which it probably will not. Most important, Obama’s feckless tactics gave the Iranians another year to get closer to nuclear pay dirt.
Second, Clinton’s condemnations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are appropriate, but sanctions that target only that malevolent organization are not enough. Limited measures that will take months to enact and enforce — if they are actually enforced — will be evaded and eventually ignored.
Third, Hillary’s tough talk is not backed by even a hint of the use of force. If we accept that an Iranian nuclear weapon is unthinkable, surely we must at least keep the option of force on the table. But no one listening to even the most belligerent of Clinton’s speeches can detect anything that sounds like a credible threat that might make the Iranians think twice.
Lastly, we must ask ourselves whether the handoff of Iran to Clinton signifies that her beliefs have won out or that the White House is acknowledging it is playing a losing hand and wishes no longer to be the face of a policy headed for disaster? The Times claims that: “Iran policy has shifted from bold gestures to the grinding diplomacy of drafting a Security Council sanctions resolution. That is the State Department’s forte.” That may well be true. But the idea that Washington is now unleashing Foggy Bottom’s best resolution drafters is not the sort of thing that strikes fear into a tyrant’s heart. Especially when they know the Chinese can always prevent a resolution with teeth from passing.
With force off the table and the Obama engagement policy morphing into a long, drawn-out diplomatic effort to create a limited sanctions plan that is unlikely to work, it is hard to believe that anyone in the White House really thinks that Hillary Clinton has been given a chance to succeed. If, as has long been feared, the administration is transitioning from a policy of failed engagement to one predicated on learning to live with Iranian nukes, then the secretary of state is being set up for failure — not vindication of her campaign rhetoric. As much as a more realistic assessment of Iran is to be welcomed, the idea that Hillary is now in charge on Iran may just be a polite way of saying that the administration is officially punting on the issue.