Gary Sick served in the National Security Council of the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, including as the chief White House aide on Iran during the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis. He currently is a senior researcher and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, from where he runs a Persian Gulf oriented listserv for Gulf experts, academics, and journalists. He offered these comments there, with permission to share.
Hillary Clinton’s warning that the United States could “obliterate” Iran if that country should “foolishly consider” launching an attack on Israel is, of course, pandering to a broad American constituency that wants to hear tough rhetoric about Iran. It is also intended to appeal to a constituency that needs constant reassurance that America’s relationship with Israel is secure. And, by addressing a strategic hypothetical that would by any measure be many years in the future (“in the next ten years” in her words), it seems intended to convince doubters that a woman is tough enough – perhaps more than tough enough – to be commander in chief.
Although her use of the word “obliterate” was both excessive and ill-advised, it might be seen as a challenge to Obama to match her toughness, or even as simply pandering shamelessly to a constituency that thrives on political red meat. That is not very flattering to her, but it might be regarded as politics as usual. What makes this statement particularly troublesome is that it cannot be dismissed as mere off-the-cuff responses to a TV interviewer. Rather, it appears to be part of a broader, considered policy that would likely be at the heart of the Middle East strategy of President Hillary Clinton.
The Clinton campaign, while explaining her remarks to skeptics, made it clear that this was no slip of the tongue. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reports that the “obliterate” remarks are part of a more extensive plan, first advanced in the debate prior to the Pennsylvania primary, for a new defensive alliance with the Arab states and Israel, in which the United States would extend not only a “security umbrella” over Israel but also “provide a deterrent backup” that would extend U.S. nuclear guarantees to Arab states who renounce nuclear weapons. The apparent author of this strategy is Martin Indyk. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/03/AR2008050301875.html.
Martin Indyk came into Bill Clinton’s administration as director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council and later represented the United States as ambassador to Israel (twice) as well as a stint as Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs at the Department of State. He was present at every stage of the Clinton administration’s Middle East policy, but he is most frequently remembered, at least by Persian Gulf specialists, as the author of the so-called “dual containment” policy.
“Dual containment” basically postulates that the way to deal with recalcitrant states in the Persian Gulf (i.e. states that are unsympathetic to U.S. interests and objectives) is to isolate them and “contain” them, relying on sanctions and superior military power. It was also quite explicit in linking “containment of Iraq and Iran in the east” with “promotion of Arab-Israeli peace in the west.” This was a new twist in U.S. policy which had previously maintained that the Persian Gulf/oil could be separated from the Arab-Israeli dispute. The policy was therefore viewed by many as attempting to wall off the troublesome Persian Gulf region so that the United States could focus on the Arab-Israel issue, or, as it later evolved, on Israel alone. It was also a unilateral policy: collaborators would be nice, but in their absence the United States could and would act alone.
Although the name “dual containment” is no longer used, especially after the invasion of Iraq removed one of the policy’s targets, it is nevertheless true that the dominant premise of the policy – that you deal with your enemies and rivals unilaterally by isolation and threats rather than engagement – is one Clintonian policy that has been adopted unabashedly by the Bush administration. It has defined U.S. policy in the region for the past decade and a half.
Dual containment was first announced by Indyk in May 1993, in the early months of the Bill Clinton administration. The previous administration of George Bush pere had held out the promise that “Good will begets good will,” to entice Iran to intervene on behalf of the American hostages in Lebanon; Iran did so, but by the time the hostages were successfully released, Bush was deep into a presidential campaign and could not fulfill his commitment. Then, of course, he lost the election and the Iranians were told that they would have to forget about any U.S. promises.
Still, Iran had taken a serious decision to try to open channels to the United States, and when Bill Clinton was elected, they put out new feelers (in which I had a small role). These were ignored in favor of dual containment. Iran tried again with unilateral economic offers in 1995, but the Clinton administration responded by enacting far-reaching economic sanctions against Iran.
Dual containment and its accompanying sanctions were adopted with the stated objective of changing Iran’s behavior on a number of issues: nuclear, Arab-Israel peace process, and terrorism, among others. After a full quarter of a century, with the United States doing everything in its power to coerce and threaten Iran economically and militarily, Iran’s policies have changed to some degree, but it would take a real ideologue to claim that they have evolved on anything other than an Iranian schedule according to Iranian political objectives. In short, U.S. policies have failed utterly in their key objectives. Yet our answer – and the answer of the Clinton campaign from what we can tell – is more of the same. Clinton-Indyk give lip service to engagement, but then so does Bush-Cheney.
The “new defensive alliance” with Arab states of the Middle East that Sen. Clinton has been proposing in the past few weeks is so similar to the anti-Iran alliance that the Bush administration has been trying to sell to the Sunni Arab states (with Israel as a silent partner), that I must admit I cannot see the difference. In fact, the “Bush Doctrine” toward Iran and the Arab states was nothing but a continuation of the “Clinton-Indyk Doctrine” that preceded it, and it now appears that if Hillary should win the presidency, we will come full circle back to Clinton-Indyk redux.
I have known Martin Indyk since we were at Columbia together, and I respect him as a professional. But I thought dual containment was a terrible idea from the first time I heard it, and Martin knows it. By emphasizing threats and sanctions above even the most minimal engagement, I think this concept was the origin of many of our worst mistakes and missed opportunities over the past 15 years.
Characteristically, this latest version never stops to ask how the regional states may react to our unilateral unfolding of an “umbrella,” much less our anticipation that they will respond with gratitude and formal recognition of Israel. That is what Indyk specifies as the price. This sounds like the kind of unrealistic expectations that we have built into our Middle East policies repeatedly over the past dozen years.
As my friends know well, I have been a stout defender of Hillary Clinton’s campaign from the very beginning, while maintaining my admiration for Barack Obama. (In the most recent case, I was impressed by the fact that Obama refused to rise to the bait, while she accepted the hypothetical and ran with it.) I respected the depth of her politically skilled network, her grit and determination, and her ability to take a punch. My major argument, of course, was Clinton’s experience. But experience is a two-edged sword.
The chance for a fresh start – for “change” in the current political lexicon – was to me the great hope of this presidential campaign. But Clinton’s recent remarks, and the underlying policy from which they apparently sprang, are evidence that, at least on this issue, we might only look forward to more of the same under a Clinton presidency. In that sense, I think we would be losing one of the great chances of this generation to begin to fashion a more sensible policy in a region that I care about greatly.