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Saturday, December 10, 2016

When Sarah Palin joins Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and a motley crew of crazies in Washington this week to rally against the Iran nuclear deal, the speeches are likely to reflect the incoherence of the opposition. None of these right-wing celebrities appears to comprehend its terms, how it was negotiated or – most important – why its failure would probably lead to yet another horrific war.

On that same day, as Cruz, Trump, and Palin blather on about their love of Israel, their hatred for Barack Obama, and their determination to “make America great again,” someone else will step up to support the agreement – someone whose diplomatic efforts laid the groundwork for successful negotiations with Tehran.

That would be Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former Secretary of State and leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Scheduling a major speech on the Iran deal for the same day as the Washington event, Clinton is plainly determined to display her mastery of its details as well as her defiance of the right-wing opposition.

But this speech — which could become one of the best moments in public life — will also prove just how far she has come since the last time she ran for president.

That’s because Iran was the subject of one of the most troubling moments in her 2008 campaign, when she promised to “totally obliterate” that country (and presumably its 70 million-plus population) if the mullahs ever attacked Israel with a nuclear weapon. Having uttered that genocidal threat in response to a provocative question, she reiterated the same bluster a few days later on ABC News’ This Week.

“I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran [if they attack Israel with nuclear weapons]. And I want them to understand that. … I think we have to be very clear about what we would do,” she told host George Stephanopoulos.

At the time, in early May 2008, it wasn’t clear why the Iranians needed to “understand” any such ultimatum, since our own intelligence showed that they neither had nuclear weapons nor were likely to possess such weapons any time soon – and that the Israeli military was (and is) fully capable of nuclear retaliation. Clinton’s harsh rhetoric seemed to be aimed more directly at Obama, her primary opponent, whose aim of negotiating with traditional enemies like Tehran she had denounced as “naïve.”

Those who expected better from her pointed to her Mideast advisors, who advocated an opening to Iran, and to her own previous remarks about the imperative of talking with “bad people” as a sign of strength, not weakness. But at that moment, she seemed to echo John McCain and the “bomb Iran” chorus among the Republicans.

Much has changed since 2008, of course – including the leadership of the Iranian government. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the aggressive Holocaust denier who held the Iranian presidency back then, gave way in 2013 to Hassan Rouhani, a reformer who wants to end his country’s international isolation. Thanks in part to Clinton’s work as Secretary of State, a powerful and unprecedented international alliance enforced real sanctions that finally pushed Iran into serious negotiations. And since those negotiations began, Rouhani’s government has heeded the required limitations on its nuclear activities.

Perhaps Clinton hasn’t changed. After all, she has always believed that diplomacy, aid, and other aspects of American power are just as fundamental to our security as military force. But she has found a balance and a voice that are more vital than ever in a contest against irresponsible politicians, whose demagogy points us again toward war.

Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses a panel on healthcare in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 4, 2015. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

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