Viewers waking up to Good Morning America recently heard Hillary Clinton say: "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them." She quickly added “that’s a terrible thing to say, but” …. Uh, yeah, it is. It’s enough to make you drop your coffee cup.
“Obliterating” a country as large as Iran suggests killing millions of innocent civilians in a brutal and devastating nuclear attack. (Tehran has a population of 14 million.) A Presidential candidate really shouldn’t be casually chatting about such a violent event in response to a hypothetical situation that no one in his or her right mind sees as likely let alone imminent. It is a disturbing statement that has not gotten the coverage it deserves.
In other appearances she reiterated the idea of “massive retaliation” against Iran while floating the idea that if Iran got nuclear weapons that a “umbrella of deterrence” provided by the US to countries in the region might both prevent an Iranian attack and forestall other countries in the region working to get nuclear weapons.
She told MSNBC’s Keith Olberman “I think deterrence has not been effectively used in recent times, we used it very well during the cold war.” She criticized those who argue Iranian leaders would be undeterrable because they are willing to “martyr themselves” saying: “I don’t buy that”. (Video above at 5:45.) To Clinton’s credit, this is a refreshingly pragmatic articulation of an alternative to military attacks for dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. (A discussion of the umbrella idea – and some of the pitfalls of that approach – can be found on Foreign Policy’s blog.)
So … Clinton is playing a tricky game here. She is broaching some interesting ideas that reflect a more sober approach than the usual discourse around Iran. But she mixes that with wild-eyed talk of “obliterating” a country that in the real world doesn’t have nuclear weapons, that may not even be pursuing nuclear weapons, and that has just agreed to greater transparency about its nuclear technology programs. (Iran just agreed to greater cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog IAEA in clarifying whether or not its programs are related to weapons development.) Her storyline also ignores the fact that Israel is perfectly able to deter, respond, and obliterate with its own nuclear arsenal.
What’s ironic is that we’ve been here before … with the roles reversed. Clinton criticized Obama for engaging in the same type of tough guy hypothetical about attacks against Pakistani targets. She said at the time: “Well, I do not believe people running for president should engage in hypotheticals … So you can think big, but remember, you shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences across the world.” I agreed with her then about that and I agree with her now. This kind of intellectually sloppy saber-rattling is what helped lead us into the Iraq war. All of the candidates should cool it.