Democratic Primary Candidates Define Their Foreign Policy
Gareth Porter says Hillary wants to support the Syrian opposition and overthrow Assad, while Bernie’s priority is to defeat ISIS
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Also welcome to the Gareth Porter Report on the Real News Network.
A focal point of the recent DNC debate was the issue of foreign policy. Throughout the debate, Hillary Clinton positioned herself as the most experienced in this arena, citing her work as the Secretary of State. That claim is perhaps true, but during her term, Clinton oversaw the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the invasion of Libya, and played a role in the U.S. pivot to Asia. So here joining us today to question her track record in terms of foreign policy is Gareth Porter. Gareth is a historian and investigative journalist on U.S. national security policy, and he writes for the Middle East Eye, and is the recipient of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. He’s also the author of five books, the latest of which is Manufactured Crises: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.
Gareth, thank you so much for joining us today.
GARETH PORTER: Thank you for having me again, Sharmini.
PERIES: So Gareth, let’s dig in, here. Hillary has contrasted herself from even Obama, her own president. And for instance, she was claiming that she would arm the rebels in Syria, as well as wanting a more confrontational approach to deal with Russia, that reset button she wanted to push earlier on in her term as secretary of state. Certainly took different turns during he course of her rein. So what do you make of her track record?
PORTER: Well, first of all, I think that it is certainly remarkable, it needs to be noted, that during the first debate that she had with Bernie Sanders, the issue of foreign policy was discussed in a way that, to me, is unique in the recent decades in U.S. politics. Because the two Democratic candidates had very starkly different positions on the really crucial political issue, policy issue, of Syria, in which, basically, she was positioning herself as the candidate who wanted to be involved in supporting the, the Syrian opposition to overthrow the regime of Assad, whereas he was taking the position that no, our priority should be the defeat of ISIS. That is the threat to the United States. Assad is not a threat to the United States, and we should have our priorities straight. And the two things are really at odds with one another.
And so she was in a position of really having to be, to defend a position that is a little bit difficult to defend, which is that no, no, we can have it both ways. And I thought that that was a very defining moment in the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and one that I think will be repeated during the rest of the campaign. I think we will see that as the defining foreign policy issue in the Democratic campaign. More than anything else.
PERIES: Now, she has not been a conciliatory secretary of state, for sure. I remember during the 2008 presidential campaign, when she was running against President Obama, she, for example, was a supporter of the Iranian National Guard being declared a terrorist organization, which is completely unheard of, to have the military arm of a nation-state declared a terrorist organization. Take us back to that point, Gareth, because I know you’ve been following the Iran nuclear negotiations and issues for a very long time, including that moment.
PORTER: Right, absolutely. That time, 2008, during the Democratic campaign, when Hillary Clinton and Obama were facing one another. This issue of what the United States should do about Iran was clearly the major foreign policy issue facing the candidates. And you’re absolutely right that Hillary Clinton was staking out a more hawkish position on that issue than Obama was. That was, that was–there was a very clear difference between them on that, in terms of Hillary Clinton essentially criticizing Obama for favoring diplomatic approach to the issue, saying that he would start talks with Iran after becoming president of the United States. And Clinton, by implication, was saying no, no, that’s going too far. You shouldn’t be doing that.
And at the same time, Clinton was using language which suggested that she, under some circumstances, was not adverse to use force against Iran. She was much more willing to talk about war against Iran. Even though she was not, you know, calling for it at that moment, it was very clear that she was much more wedded to a military approach to the whole issue of U.S. relations with Iran than Obama was.
And so I can tell you that in December, late December early January, it was late December ’08 and January ’09, I was in Tehran. First visit that I’ve made to Iran. Was specifically for the purpose of sort of scouting out what the Iranian government was thinking about the newly-elected Obama administration. And at that point it was very interesting that the first few days I was in Tehran, I was hearing from a people that there was a debate going on between two schools of thought within the Iranian government and political leadership. On one side were people who were saying that, you know, Obama is simply a tool of the Israeli lobby and doesn’t have any independence, and therefore we should really avoid entering into negotiations with a new administration.
On the other side was the school of thought that said, well, wait a minute now. He was running as a peace candidate, he has an important pro-peace constituency that he appealed to, and therefore we should wait and see. We should give him a chance to see if he does, in fact, take an independent position different from previous administrations toward Iran.
But the moment, the day Obama nominated Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, it was very clear from my conversations after that that the debate was over. That was convincing evidence to the Iranian political leadership and government that Obama was going to lean heavily in the direction of a more hawkish position toward Iran.
PERIES: Now Gareth, the Iran deal was completed in 2015, two years after Clinton completed her term as secretary of state. And Clinton has publicly stated her distrust of the Iranian regime numerous times, including during the debate on Sunday night. What can we expect in terms of her engagement with the Iranians and the implementation of this deal if she becomes president?
PORTER: Well, unfortunately, I think that we can expect that a Clinton, second Clinton administration or a third Clinton administration, would in fact take a position that is distinctly hawkish in a sense that Iran would continue to be regarded as a, an enemy, an adversary, that the United States would continue to support the Israelis and the Saudis in a front that is opposed to Iran’s position on a series of issues in the Middle East, and that, that the Clinton administration would, would support the coalition of jihadist and other forces aligned with the jihadists in Syria in continuing to put pressure on the Assad regime, if not to overthrow it.
Now, unfortunately, that position is not that different from the position taken by the Obama administration right now. So I think we could expect Clinton to try to underline some differences with Obama on foreign policy, but on this issue I think that she would be basically continuing a policy that Obama is now already pursuing in regard to Syria.
PERIES: All right, Gareth, there’s a lot more to talk about in terms of Hillary’s track record. Let’s take that up in segment two.
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