THE BLOG
11/30/2015 12:19 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

The Middle East is Changing, Hillary Clinton's Policy Isn't

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For someone who has been running for President seemingly her entire political career, Hillary Clinton raises more questions than answers when it comes to Middle East policy. It is not a lack of clarity that plagues her campaign -- on the contrary, her views are crystal clear.

Instead, it is her vision that is perplexing. If we take Secretary Clinton's words at face value -- and after two Presidential campaigns, there is no reason why we shouldn't -- she appears to be doubling down on a regional security framework prioritizing the containment of Iran at the expense of more pressing issues, such as radical jihadism.

To her credit, Clinton supported the Iran nuclear deal before it was a foregone conclusion that it would survive in Congress. "Is it perfect? Well, of course not. No agreement like this ever is," she said in September. "But is it a strong agreement? Yes, it is and we absolutely should not turn it down." Clinton's public support for the deal sent a clear message that it was not a bilateral transaction between President Obama and Iran -- instead, the deal was a multilateral agreement between seven nations that she would continue to honor if elected President.

After that, however, things get complicated. Clinton also said, "This is not the start of some larger diplomatic opening" and "I don't see Iran as our partner in implementing this agreement. I believe Iran is the subject of the agreement." Making statements that echo Iranian hardliners is a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy that erodes the aforementioned credit she deserves. Downplaying the possibility of a larger diplomatic opening -- and pretending Iran is not a partner in implementing a deal that required its approval -- needlessly reduces the requisite political space to make such an opening come to fruition should the opportunity present itself.

Things got even more complicated in Secretary Clinton's recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges. Regional politics are too interwoven," she said. "Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the cost to Iran for bad behavior will contribute more effectively to the fight against ISIS." How can Iran and ISIS be the same challenge when Iran is the only Muslim-majority country in the Middle East fighting ISIS on the ground? Perhaps more importantly, is raising the confidence of our Arab allies really the right move at a time when they are the ones financing jihadists such as ISIS?

Clinton herself has acknowledged that "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." If we take new steps to raise their confidence level while they continue working against American interests, won't they be socialized into thinking this kind of behavior delivers results and they can get away with anything? Clinton acknowledges this logic -- but only when applied to Iran. "Raising the cost to Iran for bad behavior" while turning a blind eye to the unsavory behavior of our Arab allies actively reverses President Obama's important progress in re-establishing America's role as a balancer in the Middle East.

Obama has acknowledged the obvious: We need to re-examine all of our relationships in the region, and sustained channels of communication with Iran can better balance our efforts. Simply put, our Arab allies are successful in producing our worst terrorist enemies in the world with no cost to their alliance with the United States. Why shouldn't the U.S. have more options at its disposal to achieve its interests and reduce the threats it faces? Why should the U.S. be trapped in alliances that prohibit any alternative that can be leveraged to hold bad allies accountable?

Secretary Clinton is telling Americans that we should do more of the same in the Middle East, and that is precisely the policy prescription that helped develop al-Qaeda and ISIS in the first place. The U.S. needs to forge pragmatic, functioning relations throughout the region to maximize its flexibility and reduce security threats as they evolve. Working with a greater number of countries provides America with more leverage and better options -- and perhaps most importantly, it will impose a cost on countries that take U.S. support for granted. Saudi Arabia will have to think twice before implementing policies that damage American security interests if it knows America can pick up the phone and call Iran instead.

The more options America has, the greater its leverage becomes. But Secretary Clinton seems to believe that a series of private conversations with our Arab partners will change their long-standing bad behavior. She is right to emphasize the need to try backroom diplomacy first -- but the Obama administration has seven years of backroom diplomacy with our Arab partners and little to show for it. It is long past time to go to the megaphones and publicly hold our allies accountable.

Obama correctly decided that America is no longer willing to pay the increasingly costly price that is required to keep our Arab allies preferred strategy of containing Iran in place -- and he has told them as much. The days of Arab leaders free riding on an American-enforced regional security framework based on Iran's exclusion -- a framework that contradicts that natural balance of power -- are over. Obama correctly recognizes the diminishing returns and implausible sustainability over the long run. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, however, has thus far been unwilling or unable to adjust.

Secretary Clinton's outdated Middle East policy vision becomes even more perplexing when juxtaposed with her Democratic primary challenger, Bernie Sanders. Rather than doubling down on the past, Sanders said "Our response must begin with an understanding of past mistakes and missteps in our previous approach to foreign policy," and "Wealthy and powerful Muslim nations in the region can no longer sit on the sidelines and expect the United States to do their work for them." Clinton served in the Obama administration for four years, but it is Senator Sanders who sounds like "Change we can believe in."

Foreign policy does not typically decide Presidential elections. However, Hillary Clinton's vote for the Iraq war in 2003 did contribute to her undoing in the 2008 presidential election. The same hawkish mentality that informed her 2003 vote does not appear to have subsided in 2015. As the disastrous legacy of the Bush administration continues to plague American foreign policy and national security, it is unclear why Clinton is articulating a foreign policy vision for the Middle East that identifies more with Obama's predecessor when most voters continue identifying with Obama.

Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council. He tweets at @rezamarashi.