Hillary the hawk or Mrs C the peacenik?

The US media isn’t sure whether Obama was brave or foolish with his Secretary of State appointment


Barack Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State has been seen in the media as both brave and foolhardy. Brave, because Mrs Clinton’s approach to Iran and the Middle East was so radically different to Obama’s during the Democratic primaries. And foolhardy because she brings with her a great deal of political baggage, not least what The Sunday Telegraph described as a “coterie of controlling, defensive and at times paranoid circle of admirers and supporters at the heart of foreign policy”.

During the primary campaign, there was no issue on which there was more clear blue water between the President-elect and the soon-to-be former New York Senator than that of Iran. As Kim Ghattas of the BBC noted in a web dispatch from Washington during the campaign, Clinton told ABC News that if she were president (which, of course, she is not) “we will attack Iran if it attacked Israel”. In contrast, Obama often referred during the campaign to “changing the world” and even talking to Tehran. Ghattas notes that the President-elect later modified this view, warning that he would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

The press is confused as to which Clinton we will see as Secretary of State. The New York Times wondered whether it would be “the once hawkish sounding Mrs Clinton on the Middle East” or whether, as Obama’s chief envoy, she would focus on “negotiating with Iran and coaxing Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights to make peace with Syria”, and to leave most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to foster the creation of a Palestinian state. The NYT concluded that it will be Clinton the peacenik who will eventually emerge from the foreign policy cauldron.

There is no shortage of advice from the UK press as to what Hillary should do. The Economist suggests that if she is too grand to follow the Kissinger model of shuttle diplomacy, then she should appoint an envoy who will take up the cudgels. The goal, it says in an “email to the President-elect’s BlackBerry”, should be two-fold. First, the envoy should “make our Arab friends wangle Hamas back into a Palestinian unity government”. Secondly, it should get an international “buy-in to an Obama plan” which will consist of the parameters Bill Clinton drew up in 2000 — “the nearest you’ll get to a sellable compromise”. It urges Mrs Clinton to sell the package to her New York friends and Riyadh and to put the heat on Israel.

Despite Tony Blair claiming to have won assurances from Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton that the Middle East would be top of the foreign policy agenda, it is not clear that he will be part of their plans. Times foreign editor Richard Beeston argues that “Blair is no longer the right man for the job”. He describes Blair as “tainted by his unconditional support for America’s invasion of Iraq” and his support of Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war.

The Independent’s Jerusalem correspondent, Donald Macintyre, argues that the Israeli elections will determine whether Obama/Clinton have a chance of producing “speedier and more tangible results”. What is needed, he says, is an Israeli government that at least pays lip service to a two-state solution. In his view, if Likud is elected the omens are not good.

This ignores some of the lessons of modern Middle East history. It was under the right-wing government of Menachem Begin that the first steps to a comprehensive settlement in the region were taken at Camp David. And it was Ariel Sharon who withdrew from Gaza, ending the dream of a Greater Israel. So maybe a Netanyahu government will be helpful to Clinton after all.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 10:53am, December 11 2008