Hillary Clintons Mideast policy likely veers from Obamas

A month before her foreign policy autobiography, “Hard Choices,” hits the bookstores, Hillary Rodham Clinton pitched her diplomatic credentials to a friendly Jewish audience.

Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee on May 14 was meant to send a signal to the pro-Israel community, insiders say, that a Clinton presidency would smooth over tensions raised by the Obama White House. So while she broadly defended Obama administration policies, she also suggested areas where she had differences with the president, such as on Iran.

Hillary Rodham Clinton at the AJC on May 14 photo/jta-ronald sachs

“President Obama has said that the odds of reaching a comprehensive agreement are no more than 50-50,” Clinton said, referring to the U.S.-led talks between the major powers and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program.

“I personally am skeptical that the Iranians will follow through and deliver. I’ve seen many false hopes dashed over the years,” she said. “We will have to be tough, clear-eyed and ready to walk away and increase the pressure if need be.

“From my perspective, we cannot and should not accept any agreement that endangers Israel or our own national security.”

Robert Wexler, the former Democratic congressman from Florida who was the first major Jewish politician to join the Obama campaign in early 2007, said the differences Clinton is emphasizing reflect not just her worldview, but the changed foreign policy reality she heads into should she run for the presidency.

“President Obama, in terms of foreign policy, was elected to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that was his primary charge,” said Wexler, who now heads the Center for Middle East Peace. “The expectations the American people would have for a President Hillary Clinton would be different. The calling may be to reassert American leadership, which is entirely consistent with Secretary Clinton’s worldview.”

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator under a succession of Republicans and Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, said Hillary Clinton was a good soldier for Obama’s bid to transform the world, but also demonstrated understanding that her boss may have overreached.

“She understood the world was not a transformative place, it was transactional,” said Miller, now vice president at the Wilson Center, a foreign policy think tank. “In that respect she was much more hawkish on Syria.” (Clinton joined calls for a U.S. strike on the Assad regime to contain the bloody civil war, whereas Obama opted to seek authorization for a strike from Congress, and then abandoned the option when it was clear he lacked support.)

The June 10 release of “Hard Choices” is widely perceived as Clinton’s opening salvo for a 2016 run for the Democratic presidential nod, the prize Obama took from her in a bitter 2008 primary election. As her Jewish campaign goes forward, a source close to Clinton said, she and others close to her will subtly introduce three areas of Middle East policy in which her 2008 differences with Obama were validated over time.

They include two postures that got her into trouble with the Democratic base in 2008 and helped contribute to her defeat: Her stated opposition during the primaries to meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s then-president, and her support as a U.S. senator from New York for legislation that would have designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.

Obama said during the campaign that he would meet with Ahmadinejad, seen as a Holocaust denier and seeker of Israel’s destruction. Obama’s campaign also mercilessly ripped Clinton for backing the Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist designation, likening it to her support for the legislation used by President George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq.

The third difference to be highlighted is Clinton’s opposition during the ’08 campaign to participating in Durban II, the 2009 reprise of the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference that devolved into an anti-Israel free-for-all. Obama would not commit during the campaign to boycotting the ’09 conference.

In each case, the source argued, Clinton was vindicated. Ahmadinejad ignored Obama’s spring 2009 call for dialogue. The legislative bid to designate the Revolutionary Guards as terrorist did not pass, but the guards were implicated in the violent repression of mass Iranian protests following the contested 2009 presidential election and were accused of torturing and raping men and women in prisons around Iran.

As for Durban II, the Obama administration at first sought avenues through which U.S. participation would prevent an anti-Israel tone, but eventually conceded this was unlikely and chose not to participate.

Steven Rabinowitz, a publicist who works with Jewish and Democratic groups, said Clinton might have work to do in a pro-Israel community that had avidly embraced her during her Senate career.

“I hope people can draw the distinction between Hillary the person who we know and love and Hillary the loyal secretary of state for the guy who beat her and embraced her,” Rabinowitz said.

Judging from the reaction to her AJC speech, Clinton is on her way. Speaking immediately after her was Matthew Bronfman, a member of the group’s executive council.

“Thank you Madam Secretary, and speaking of hard choices, we know you have a hard choice to make coming up soon, and speaking on behalf of AJC we hope you make the right one,” he said.

The crowd whooped its delight.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief