One day in the 1990s, a foreign policy type fetched up in my office at The Forward wanting the paper to issue an editorial proposing that America bomb Belgrade. This was as the reports were coming out about Serb atrocities. No doubt the fellow came to us because the paper had caused a hubbub with an editorial calling for an attack on North Korea, where, technically, the United Nations was (and is) still at war. But I demurred, and the honors in respect of Yugoslavia fell to a Clinton administration that was well to my left.
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Sic transit gloria mundi. I’ve been thinking of that moment this week following Hillary Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Congress. It has prompted the press to suggest that the former state secretary has begun, as it was put in a dispatch in the Huffington Post, “laying out foreign-policy positions that sound a more hard-line note on Iran, Russia and other global trouble spots than is coming from President Barack Obama.” The idea was that in the coming race she might try to run to the right of the administration she just served.
Of course, Hillary Clinton served in two administrations, and in neither of them was it cookies, a task she famously eschewed. One administration she served, Obama’s, has emerged as the most left-wing in American history. The other, her husband’s, was a more conservative — or at least practical — administration, where she was the most engaged of all American First Ladies. The Forward, incidentally, endorsed her husband in both his presidential campaigns. To be a conservative Democrat was a winning combination.
That was abandoned in the summer of 2000, when Vice President Albert Gore, in a speech accepting the Democratic nomination, took a hard left turn and began a campaign that handed the presidency to George W. Bush. That was the same year that Hillary Clinton trounced a right-wing Republican with a centrist campaign for Senate in what, in New York, is one of the most liberal states in the Union. How she is going to negotiate all this in the coming campaign, if she makes one, is one of the great questions.
It certainly will be hard to make book on the record, for there is an emerging view that Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom was inconsequential. She misread the Arab Spring, her re-set with Russia is in ruins, and whatever else one can say about Secretary of State Kerry, on activist diplomacy he makes her look like a slacker. But if Clinton can differentiate herself from the current collapse, if she can seize the centrist ground on which her husband won the presidency, she may have something to work with.
Yet her speech to the American Jewish Congress turns out to be but a thin reed. Clinton allied herself with the two-state approach to the Palestinian problem, a hole into which, given the Clinton record, she seemed doomed to dig herself deeper. The news, according to several accounts of the speech, was in her remarks in respect of Iran, on which she declared herself “personally skeptical” that the mullahs will “follow through and deliver.”
She boasted that as senator she’d “voted for every sanction that came down the pike” against Iran. She insisted that the Obama administration “went after Iran’s oil industry, banks and weapons programs” and “enlisted insurance firms, shipping lines, energy companies, financial institutions and others.” Yet she backed the administration’s negotiations with the mullahs and opposed the contingency sanctions being sought by the Congress.
That is a test to watch. Clinton aligned herself with the claim that the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act would undermine rather than buttress negotiations with the mullahs. That puts her askew of the view originally advanced by, among others, Senator Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer and supported by more than half of the member of the upper chamber. In other words, for those looking for a hardline Democrat to lead the ticket in 2016, there’s little so far from Hillary Clinton to suggest that she’s the candidate.
What difference does it make (as she once put it in respect of Benghazi)? After all, Iran is only one of the crises facing the world. The Crimea is now occupied. Putin is going rogue, and the Communist Chinese are testing us in the Sea of Japan — and, for that matter, in North Korea. Russian warships are showing up in the Caribbean. In the idea that American offer an option to Britain if it exits the European Union she has shown no interest.
In the Balkans, President Clinton finally embraced an air war to stop the atrocities at Kosovo, where, in operation “Noble Anvil,” allied warplanes flew something like 14,000 strike and air suppression sorties over 78 days. If Hillary Clinton can’t find somewhere to make a clear break with the president she fought against so tenaciously in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and who is now in trouble on every front, what confidence can there be that all options are on the table against Iran’s nuclear bomb-making program?
The author is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.