What will the second President Clinton do in the Middle East?
Washington - Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a familiar presence in the Middle East for nearly a quarter century. Yet for all her high visibility as first lady, senator and secretary of state, she remains an opaque, sphinx-like figure. How will she treat the region if she is elected president?
Clinton is in no way anti-Arab. The Clinton Foundation has received at least $40 million from wealthy Gulf Arab donors. She has longstanding friendships with leaders and members of royal families throughout the region. She struck up an especially close friendship with Suha Arafat, the widow of Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat. She also has close ties and friendships with Israel.
But as secretary of state and putative presidential candidate, Clinton reversed herself on key issues in recent years. She spoke out repeatedly and strongly against allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons when she was secretary of state. Yet now her intimates have said she strongly supported the talks that led to the formal negotiations for Tehran.
She was a powerful hawk arguing that the United States must maintain a strong military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout her four years as secretary of state. She was a key figure in encouraging the democratic protests and overthrow of old authoritarian regimes that characterised the “Arab spring”. Yet now she is distancing herself from that policy and criticising US President Barack Obama for his support of the protest movements, which she at the time shared.
How can one make any serious assessment of what she will do as president, given such wildly contradictory and erratic stands? There are enduring contexts and key factors that can give us at least an idea of the key policies Clinton will pursue in the region.
First, she has had an enduring passion for a two-state solution to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. She passively accepted the policies of Obama, his top political advisers and the National Security Council, then under national security adviser Tom Donilon, and made no effort whatsoever to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to stop expanding settlements outside Israel’s 1967 borders or to make him seriously pursue a two-state solution.
However, once elected president, it is a safe bet that Clinton will move with far more determination and pressure to force Netanyahu back to the negotiating table in earnest. However strained US-Israeli relations will be under Obama in the next two years, they will be vastly more so, to an unprecedented degree in recent decades, if Clinton becomes president.
Her presidency will not be an unmixed blessing for the main Arab nations in the region. If Clinton follows her traditional orientation of the past quarter century, they should be able to expect strong, predictable and consistent US support. But this will be distorted by the immense emphasis Clinton will certainly give to promoting women’s rights and human rights throughout the region, even at the risk of destabilising longstanding regimes.
In the short run, her policies run the risk of making even the strongest Arab states more vulnerable to Iranian aggression and destabilisation. However, Clinton is far more likely than Obama to act decisively and send renewed US military forces into the region yet again, this time to counter growing Iranian threats.
Two other crucial factors, usually entirely overlooked by pundits, must be taken into account: Clinton will have just turned 69 if she wins the presidency and she will be her own person in it.
The first factor means that she will be an older woman in a hurry. Unlike Obama she will not be cautious on domestic and foreign policy issues that she cares deeply about during her first term.
Clinton has seen how Obama squandered his landslide 2008 victory and the healthy majorities he then carried also in the Senate and the House of Representatives. She will not make the same mistake. She has waited a very long time to win the supreme executive power. Expect her to start using it decisively and controversially as soon as she gets the chance.
Second, she will not follow meekly in the policies of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. If anything, she will react strongly against them.
These factors mean that the first six months of a Hillary Clinton presidency will not be tranquil ones for the region. There will be energy, new surges of optimism in different countries for different reasons, new opportunities and new dangers. But do not expect things to simply continue as they are.