Some in the Arab World Worry that Clinton Would Be More Hawk Than Dove

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

There is possibly no person President-elect Barack Obama considered for secretary of state who is more reliably pro-Israel than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the woman to whom he appears likely to give the job sometime after Thanksgiving.

During the Democratic primary campaign, Clinton said the United States could "obliterate" Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel. She said the United States should not negotiate with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, unless it renounced terrorism. "The United States stands with Israel, now and forever," Clinton told AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, at its conference in June.

Yet Clinton is also the former first lady who famously broke with her husband's administration in 1998 and said Palestinians should have a state of their own. Ten years later, the comment seems unexceptional, but at the time it prompted the White House to make clear she was speaking only for herself.

Clinton's foreign policy views will be scrutinized closely in the weeks ahead, but as her past statements on the Middle East illustrate, she has a considerable track record that provides evidence for several plausible explanations of how she might try to focus U.S. diplomacy.

Arabs, particularly Palestinians, are nervous that Obama seems prepared to give the job of top diplomat to a senator from New York who has spent eight years cultivating her pro-Israel constituency and would continue, they think, a lack of U.S. evenhandedness in refereeing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Because of what they regard as her bellicose rhetoric toward Iran and her initial support for the Iraq war, some see her selection as a sign that Obama intends to conduct a more hawkish foreign policy than he suggested during the campaign.

Other diplomats and foreign policy experts say Clinton would bring to Foggy Bottom one of the leading voices in the Senate for a new U.S. commitment to more aggressive diplomacy. They say she would push hard for a Middle East peace deal, in keeping with the activist approach taken by President Bill Clinton in the final years of his administration.

Some who have worked closely with Hillary Clinton during her years as first lady and as a senator say that these predictions miss the point that she would be looking to fashion practical solutions to the issues of Middle East peace, Iran's nuclear program, Iraq's political future and other problems that would confront her and Obama next year.

"The first thing you need to know about Hillary Clinton is she is a pragmatist -- she wants to know what works," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who has traveled with Clinton on fact-finding trips for the Armed Services Committee. "She believes in diplomacy and multilateral solutions but is not averse to using force when that is the only opportunity to protect our national security interests."

What Clinton believes will be somewhat beside the point come Jan. 20: In her new post, she would be vying with other powerful figures -- including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. -- for the president's ear, and she would be responsible for implementing a foreign policy established in the end by Obama.

The biggest determinant for Clinton's success, according to former State Department officials, is the kind of working arrangement she is able to establish with Obama, with whom she had a testy relationship during the primaries that seemed to warm up during the general-election campaign. Many foreign policy experts are privately baffled that Obama would deliver such a key job to someone from outside his close circle of supporters.

"She has a strong physical and intellectual presence that she can project, and she's plenty tough," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator who advised six secretaries of state. "What we don't know is: Does she have the negotiator's mind-set? And we know she doesn't yet have the kind of trust and confidence of the president that's critically important."

Leon Billings, who served as chief of staff to Edmund Muskie, the last senator to become secretary of state, said Clinton's "success will be less a function of her own skills and capabilities than how much confidence the president places in her and the extent to which he demands, not just insists, that his inner circle give her the support she will need to do the job that he needs her to do."

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