Election 2008

Clinton Promises to “Totally Obliterate” Iran (Hypothetically)

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.

5 replies »

  1. Thank you for pointing out the fact that Israel posesses hundreds of nuclear weapons. (Now if only they would sign the non-proliferation treaty, like Iran did!)
    Clinton’s stance on Iran indicates that she is hell-bent on continuing the war on “terror” (ie Muslims) with no regard for truth or innocent life. I sincerely hope that no peace organization ever seriously considers endorsing this person for president.

  2. Remember, Obama is the one who said “it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance”, when asked whether he might consider using them against terrorists. Clinton’s response was:
    “I think that presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents, since the Cold War, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.”
    In essence, Clinton has implied she finds the use of nuclear weapons acceptable, and may be willing to use them “on day one” or at 3:00 AM. This implication is becoming explicit. The roles have not reversed at all.

  3. R.K. makes an excellent point that I thought about when making my initial post. I did not mean to say that Obama’s comment about a non-nuclear strike on Pakistan was equivalent to Clinton’s comment about presumably nuclear attack on Iran. R.K. is right that Obama has been willing to abandon the calculated ambiguity about US first use of nuclear weapons in way that we should applaud. Point well taken and lets give some credit to Obama. I hope R.K. will continue add to his or her insights to this blog.
    In the post I did want to highlight that in both cases I believe the two candidates were trying to score domestic political points in way that actually harms international diplomatic efforts (as many analysts pointed out in both cases). This has lead to disastrous results during the current administration as embodied by folks like Cheney and Bolton as well as the President. Let’s hope that whoever the new president is the new administration moves away from this.
    I also wanted to state something as full disclosure relative to both comments. We’re trying something a little different on this blog. Everybody in the Peace Action West office supports their own candidates in their heart of hearts. But on the blog we are truly trying to carefully cover the candidates foreign policy pronouncements from a clear issue advocacy position rather than backing someone implicitly or explicitly. We feel that we’re most effective right now offering detailed analysis of positions and statements for ALL the candidates in an evenhanded way. Ya’ know “fair and balanced”. That cuts against the grain of this hot and heavy election season but we feel that’s how we can best contribute right now.

  4. Clinton’s stance on Iran indicates that she is hell-bent on continuing the war on “terror” (ie Muslims) with no regard for truth or innocent life.
    So you’re saying that keeping the use of force as an option means you want to use that force for certain? That is an illogical statement.
    I sincerely hope that no peace organization ever seriously considers endorsing this person for president. Posted by: BenStein
    Hillary wants to secure loose nukes, prevent proliferation, secure all fissionables worldwide, and reduce existing arsenals. How is this different from what all peace organizations want?
    Further, she has made three previous statements regarding Iran:
    1) Iran should not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon (since they dont want ANYone to have them – or for them to spread – peace advocates must agree with her);
    2) The US should be involved in negotiations with Iran.
    The world’s hyperpower being involved diplomatically will improve the chances of a good solution for the world, and peace advocates want good solutions for the world, so peace advocates must agree with her);
    3) The option of the use of force against Iran must remain on the table.
    Reasonable – this is why we have a military: IN CASE we need to use it. If we take the use of force off the table, that would mean that we WOULD NOT RESPOND to an attack by Iran against the US. If this became our policy, then what would stop a hostile nation from attacking us? Since peace advocates don’t advocate leaving the US completely open to attack – at least, I have never heard any that say we should, have you? – peace advocates must agree with her.
    So there is no reason they wouldn’t endorse her.
    In essence, Clinton has implied she finds the use of nuclear weapons acceptable, and may be willing to use them “on day one” or at 3:00 AM. This implication is becoming explicit. The roles have not reversed at all.
    Posted by: R.K.
    In fact this is an entirely sensible approach on Hillary’s part, since there in fact MAY be circumstances where nuclear weapons should be used against terrorists (I can think of one right off the top of my head: the science-fictional (but fast becoming science-fact) use of a deflected asteroid or other space body as a kinetic weapon (speaking as a physicist-engineer, it’s not as far off as you think). The use of a nuclear weapon (or weapons) against such a body is one that could be very effective.))
    So to make a blanket statement you would NEVER use them against terrorists – and to act in accordance with that is entirely foolish.
    Second,I will point out that given the distance between Iran and Israel, Israel would not have time to launch a counterstrike, hence the need for US deterrence posture.
    Third, in her overall policy, she is taking the best approach: secure loose nukes, prevent proliferation, secure all fissionables worldwide, THEN reduce existing arsenals.

  5. One thing is right in the comments, though: The roles have not reversed – Hillary continues to be smart, tough, informed, strategic, pragmatic, and nuanced, while Obama continues to make absurd blanket black-and-white statements which reflect a lack of study, a lack of knowledge, a lack of rumaination, and a lack of judgement regarding international politics, history, and policy.