On Thursday, Hillary Clinton’s campaign adopted what appeared to be a new strategy against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is, according to polls released today, leading her by eight points in Iowa and nine points in New Hampshire. She attacked his support of diplomacy with Iran, dispatching Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser and the State Department’s former director of policy planning, to accuse Sanders of proposing to “aggressively normalize relations and to move to warm relations with Iran.”
For starters, the Clinton camp’s is employing a highly selective interpretation of what Sanders said at Sunday’s debate. Sanders, while expressing support for continuing to improve relations with Iran, explicitly said he was not in favor of opening an embassy in Tehran at this time and expressed concern with the rhetoric coming from Iran’s leadership.
At Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate, he said:
I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran. Understanding that Iran’s behavior in so many ways is something that we disagree with; their support for terrorism, the anti-American rhetoric that we’re hearing from of their leadership is something that is not acceptable.
On the other hand, the fact that we’ve managed to reach an agreement, something that I’ve very strongly supported, that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and we did that without going to war. And that I believe we’re seeing a thaw in our relationships with Iran is a very positive step. So if your question is, do I want to see that relationship become more positive in the future? Yes.
Can I tell that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has got to be as we’ve done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.
That’s a far cry from calling for a sudden normalization of relations. But attacking her primary opponents for advocating the benefits of diplomacy is becoming a time-honored tradition for Clinton. In 2007, for instance, she employed almost the exact same strategy in her attacks on then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).
During a July 2007, debate, Obama said that he would be willing to meet, without precondition, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. Clinton declined to make such a promise, saying, “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes.”
In a follow-up interview with the Quad City Times Clinton said that she thought Obama’s position was “irresponsible and frankly naive.” The paper reported:
Her campaign later circulated a memo to reporters saying it was a “mistake” to commit to presidential-level meetings without precondition “with some of the world’s worst dictators” and portrayed her remarks as showing her depth of experience.
Obama, in a separate interview with the Times, vigorously defended his comments.
“What she’s somehow maintaining is my statement could be construed as not having asked what the meeting was about. I didn’t say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon,” he said.
He added Clinton is making a larger point.
“From what I heard, the point was, well, I wouldn’t do that because it might allow leaders like Hugo Chavez to score propaganda points,” he said. “I think that is absolutely wrong.”
He likened the position to a continuation of the Bush administration diplomatic policies. And he said what was “irresponsible and naive” was voting to authorize the Iraq War.
Over eight years later, Clinton’s comments seem particularly foolish. Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishments can be traced back to his willingness to engage in diplomacy with two longstanding U.S. enemies, Iran and Cuba. And the public has largely supported these diplomatic overtures.
A September 2015, ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 51% of registered voters supported the Iran nuclear deal while 41% opposed it. A Pew Poll conducted after Obama announced the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. and urged Congress to lift the trade embargo, found that 73% of respondents supported reestablishing diplomatic relations and 72% supported ending the embargo.
But the Clinton campaign’s decision to lash out at Sander’s endorsement of Obama’s style of foreign policy, which produced policy shifts largely in line with public opinion, isn’t the only hypocritical aspect of her strategy.
Jake Sullivan, the Clinton aide tasked with launching the misleading attack on Sanders, was part of the team tasked by Obama to initiate a series of secret meetings in Oman with Iranian officials in 2012. Those talks marked the beginning of three years of negotiations, culminating in the agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from nuclear related sanctions.
“The Iranians look at him as someone they can deal with,” Dennis Ross, a former top national security official in the Obama White House, told Politico.
Clinton and Sullivan must think there are political points to be scored by opposing further diplomacy with Iran and rejecting the type of foreign policy undertaken by the Obama administration. But Sullivan’s direct role in initiating the policy shift with Iran, Clinton’s failed efforts to run the same hawkish campaign strategy in 2007, and the public’s support of negotiations with Iran and Cuba all raise the question: who is the intended audience for Clinton and Sullivan’s hawkish rhetoric?
Clinton megadonor Haim Saban may be one explanation for the tilt toward hawkish positions. Between 2008 and 2013, his family foundation contributed over $8 million to the Clinton presidential foundation in Little Rock, Arkansas, and gave $5 million to the American Israel Education Foundation, the AIPAC fundraising arm that arranges congressional junkets to Israel. AIPAC spent an estimated $30 million opposing the Iran nuclear deal.
Saban also contributed $5-10 million to the William J. Clinton Foundation and $1 million to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Saban has gone even further than just opposing the nuclear deal. Speaking alongside GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson at an Israeli-American Council conference in November, Saban criticized the Obama administration’s negotiating tactics with Iran, complaining, “we’ve shown too many carrots and a very small stick.” He warned that if necessary to defend Israel against Iran, “I would bomb the living daylights out of the sons of bitches.”
Yesterday, The New York Times suggested that, “The Clinton strategy on this front raises the risk of deterring powerful supporters of Israel from embracing Mr. Sanders should he capture the nomination.”
The paper reported, “Later, in a conference call with reporters, Mr. Sullivan was more direct: ‘Many of you know Iran has pledged the destruction of Israel.’”