Clinton's Iran Indiscretion

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, July 26, 2009

I love writing about control freaks. They cannot resist responding in ways that prove my point.

I once received a telephone tongue-lashing at dawn from a Treasury secretary identified in that morning's column as being overly sensitive to criticism. And this month, when I suggested that the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department might not have precisely the same agenda on all issues, I was rebuked with a staged display of public harmony between those institutions. I had committed the moral equivalent of ringing Dr. Pavlov's dinner bell for the administration's message commissars.

More on that tiff in the policy sandbox in a moment. The underlying subject for today is the evolving U.S. discussion on Iran's nuclear weapons capability. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew attention to that subject last week with a few ill-considered words in a televised town hall meeting in Thailand. Here is the New York Times account of what she said:

"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon."

These words are ill-considered not because they are wrong or wrongheaded. The problem is that they state an obvious truth in obvious language. "Defense umbrella" is a term codified by decades of Cold War experience and theory. It is strategic shorthand for the commitment that an attack on our ally is an attack on us and will be dealt with as such -- including the use of nuclear weapons if necessary.

The United States has not extended such an explicit guarantee to its Arab allies in the Gulf. But the Carter Doctrine of 1980 hinted at such a commitment. And there was a lively, inconclusive internal debate during George W. Bush's second term about extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and other regional powers to keep them from seeking their own nuclear weapons.

I wrote approvingly of that idea then and still support it. It was also echoed during a presidential campaign debate in 2008 when Clinton said the United States "should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel." Her remarks in Thailand did not come out of the blue. They are precisely what Washington should be -- and no doubt is -- considering.

But President Obama has yet to bless the thought. He in fact avoided endorsing it during that campaign debate with Clinton. So in its front-page account, the Times was quick to quote a "senior White House official" -- putting aside that new display of harmony -- as having said that the secretary of state was speaking for herself.

What the media giveth the media taketh away. Two weeks ago, after I suggested that the message-control squad at the White House had kept Clinton tethered on the edges of the public limelight in the opening phase of the administration, a "major" policy address by the secretary of state was immediately scheduled to undermine such thinking.

The anodyne quality of her talk fit into that public display of harmony. So did the high visibility at the speech of White House officials eager to offer on-the-record praise of Clinton as a team player. All were duly noted in the press -- and now risk being undone by the attention paid to Clinton's Thailand talk, one of several muscular statements she made on her trip to Asia apparently to demarcate her positions more clearly than before.

Israeli politicians immediately portrayed Clinton's remarks in Thailand as a weakening of the U.S. stance on Iran by suggesting that the Obama administration is looking at scenarios for living with a nuclear-armed Iran.

That goes too far. The president believes that Iran is developing a nuclear-weapons capability through its current U.N.-opposed uranium enrichment program, a senior official told me this month, and he will not accept Iran achieving the ability to make a bomb quickly from the stockpile it is accumulating.

Key European nations -- probably including Russia and Germany -- now believe the world will have to live with such an Iranian capability rather than take military action or impose harsh sanctions. That is a fault line far more important than any turf battles in Washington.

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