At the Democratic debate in Milwaukee last week, Hillary Clinton sought to bind herself to President Obama and show that Senator Bernie Sanders has taken issue with the president on numerous occasions. Clinton’s calculation is that she can win over progressive Democrats who like the sitting president, especially African-American voters.
Sanders responded: “Have you ever disagreed with a president? I suspect you may have.”
In fact, Clinton has frequently disagreed with President Obama’s policies in the Middle East, and embraced a leader who has repeatedly undermined President Obama– Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Bernie Sanders could make political hay with these disagreements, though doing so would entail being more forceful in opposing the use of force against Iran and Syria and calling out Clinton over Netanyahu– positions that Sanders seems reluctant to adopt, maybe because he still wants to acquire political capital among liberal interventionist elites. It’s a lot easier for him to talk about Henry Kissinger and Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war in 2002 than it is to talk about Netanyahu and Syria.
Here’s a list of Hillary Clinton’s disagreements with Obama foreign policy in the Middle East.
In summer 2014 she called Obama’s policy on the Syrian civil war a “failure.” Reuters:
Distancing herself from President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, potential 2016 U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in an interview published on Sunday that the U.S. decision not to intervene early in the Syrian civil war was a “failure.”…
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said in an interview with The Atlantic…
At that time, Clinton also took Israel’s side in the Gaza slaughter, thereby distancing herself from the– very mild– criticisms issued by the Obama administration of Israel.
The Obama administration, while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, has rebuked Israel at least once during the current conflict over the deaths of civilians.
[Clinton said,] “I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the (Hamas) rockets. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command and control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult.”
Sanders himself said that Israel had “overreacted” in its attack on Gaza that left 2200 dead, including nearly 500 children. But he was reluctant to go much further. In that sense his position was very close to the Obama administration.
At that time, Clinton also knocked Obama’s famous non-interventionist doctrine:
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton said.
As an interventionist hawk, Clinton later called for American ground forces in Syria, in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations last November in which she sharply departed from Obama policy on several occasions.
[W]e should be honest about the fact that to be successful, air strikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS…
But if we press forward on both sides of the border, in the air and on the ground, as well as diplomatically, I do believe we can crush ISIS’s enclave of terror.
And to support this campaign, Congress should swiftly pass an updated authorization to use military force. That will send a message to friend and foe alike that the United States is committed to this fight.
She certainly sounds like an Iraq-war neoconservative in those remarks. But though Sanders has repeatedly said that we should not send more young Americans to “perpetual warfare” in the “quagmire” of the Middle East, in recent debates, at least, he has not called out Clinton for the ground forces in Syria recommendation.
Fareed Zakaria: Bob Gates was opposed to a no-fly zone in Syria, thought it was an act of war that was risky and dangerous. This seems to me the major difference right now between what Obama’s administration is doing and what you are proposing. Do you not—why do you disagree with Bob Gates on this?
CLINTON: Well, I believe that the no-fly zone is merited and can be implemented, again, in a coalition, not an American-only no-fly zone…
She again stated her differences with the president over the question of arming the rebels in Syria.
ZAKARIA: A couple of days ago the New York Times had a headline that said, “Paris Attacks Complicate Hillary Clinton’s Alignment with Obama.” Has it?
CLINTON: Well, it’s not the first headline I’ve disagreed with. (Laughter.) Look, I have made clear that I have differences, as I think any two people do….
But even when I was still there, which is publicly known, I thought we needed to do more earlier to try to identify indigenous Syrian fighters, so-called moderates, and I do think there were some early on, that we could have done more to help them in their fight against Assad.
And of course Clinton has repeatedly distanced herself from the Obama administration’s at-times frosty stance on Benjamin Netanyahu, the politician who has sought to undermine the president’s Iran policy. She routinely refers to Netanyahu as “Bibi,” in her book and in State Department emails. In July 2014, she told Fareed Zakaria that she was good friends with Netanyahu and he could help to create a Palestinian state. She seemed to back away from earlier criticisms of Netanyahu, saying that as secretary of state she had had to be the “designated yeller.”
I have a very good relationship with [Netanyahu], in part because we can yell at each other, and we do. And I was often the designated yeller. Something would happen, a new settlement announcement would come and I would call him up, what are you doing? You’ve got to stop this. And we understood each other because I know how hard it is to be the leader of a relatively small country that is under constant pressure and does face a lot of legitimate threats to its existence from those around it.
And I also care deeply about how Israel is able, not just to survive, but thrive, and just fundamentally disagreed with Bibi in the ’90s that I was in favor of a two-state solution. I was the first person associated with any administration to say that out loud. And he did not. But then when he came back in, in 2009, he did. And I’ve sat with him, as you and I are sitting, and I really believe that if he thought he could get adequate security guarantees for a long enough period of time, he would be able to resolve everything with the exception of Jerusalem which is the hardest issue.
Clinton continued the praise of Israel’s diplomacy at the Saban Forum last December. She distanced herself from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks that Israel through its unending settlement policy was creating a one-state reality that endangered the dream of a supposed Jewish democracy. She said:
I don’t think it’s useful to be pessimistic
Then she doubled down on her closeness to Israel and Netanyahu, . “What would you do on your first day in the oval office?” asked Haim Saban, the billionaire toymaker whose only issue is Israel and who has been pouring millions into her campaign. Clinton replied:
I’ve said there are a number of issues that I need to address on the first day and one of the things that I have said is that on the first day I would extend an invitation to the Israeli prime minister to come to the United States hopefully within the first month, certainly as soon as it could be arranged to do exactly what I briefly outlined. To work toward very much strengthening and intensifying our relationship on military matters, on terrorism and on everything else that we can do more to cooperate on that will send a strong message to our own peoples as well as the rest of the world. So that is on my list for the first day. It’s a long list, but it’s on the list and it’s near the top
At that same appearance she emphasized that she still has the military option on the table vis-a-vis Iran– a country that she said in the last campaign in 2008 she would “totally obliterate” if it launched a nuclear strike on Israel. Clinton went on to express pure distrust for the Iranians:
Oh, yes, the military option, thank you…. Yes. Yes, that the military option would not be taken off the table with respect to their nuclear program. So that was the shorthand, right?I have every reason to believe the Iranians are going to test it, they’re going to violate it, they’re going to be provocative about it, and we need to respond quickly and very harshly. And if we have any evidence that they are back into moving toward a nuclear weapon, then we will have to act even more directly…
Compare that to Sanders saying that he would move “aggressively as we can to normalize” relations with Iran– a pledge he has walked back ever since, under fire from Clinton.
Anne Gearan reported in the Washington Post that Israelis regard Clinton as a great improvement over Obama:
From Netanhayu’s perspective, Clinton would be an improvement over President Obama, who has all but washed his hands of an Israeli leader he finds overbearing, Israeli officials and observers said in interviews here.
“They have a long relationship of mutual intellectual respect,” [Michael] Oren said. “They both are very, very smart people, and people of very strong physical stamina.”
The neoconservative Washington Post editorial board applauded her steps to distance herself from Obama last November, and cited numerous disagreements and a clear “contrast” between Clinton and Obama.
President Obama has struggled to distance himself from Israel, not very successfully. But Clinton would end any distance in an instant. Sanders could play the Obama card on these issues. The question is whether he has the stomach to take Clinton on. Doing so would mean getting past Henry Kissinger’s crimes and dealing with the Middle East today. Sanders would have to emphatically reject the idea of militarism against Iran, reject ground forces in Syria, and reject Clinton’s embrace of Netanyahu. To separate himself from Clinton, he could address Israel’s one-state reality, its unending settlement policy and its war crimes in Gaza, as well as the millions Clinton has accepted from the billionaire Haim Saban and the millions that she and her husband and daughter made speaking to pro-Israel groups. And in taking these stands, Sanders could say that he was closer to Obama than Clinton is.
Sanders would need to articulate a populist non-interventionist foreign policy that doesn’t put Israel’s interests at the top of the American to-do list. His failure to do so suggests that he fears the political fallout among Jewish pro-Israel voters, or from the interventionist establishment. You can only undertake so many revolutions at once.
P.S. Could Sanders’s own youthful Zionism be a factor in his reluctance? Of course. But it’s not like any of these positions is radical, and I want to believe he’s caught a clue about the real state of Israel and Palestine today.