DUBAI: In the wake of the Orlando killings this week, Hillary Clinton had harsh words for America’s Gulf allies, criticizing them for funding institutions that radicalize young Muslims. “It is long past time for the Saudis, the Qataris and the Kuwaitis and others to stop their citizens from funding extremist organizations,” the presumptive Democratic Party nominee told an Ohio crowd. “And they should stop supporting radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path toward extremism.”
These were not the kind of incendiary political comments common for her Republican rival Donald Trump – no proposed bans, no generalizations, no stereotypes. But they did provide a window into how a President Clinton might approach the combustible, complex Middle East: polite but harsh truth-telling, with specifics, delivered as if among friends.
Tellingly, the comments were received without protest from most regional leaders who consider the messenger as much as the message. However, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said in Washington on Friday that his government has tight control over charitable giving and has designated entities and individuals suspected of terror finance. He also said that it’s unfair to point a finger at Saudi Arabia if a mosque that it funded years ago begins advocating intolerance and violence.
From her time as first lady to her globe-hopping travel as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, Clinton has formed first-name relationships in the region. That helps in a region largely dominated by the decades-long reigns. Such continuity can offer comfort and even open minds to criticism. “She’s very personal, unlike Obama,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University. “They value the strategic relationship, but they value more the personal approach.”
Yet in all of it, she’s learned the limits of American power in a region rich in history but impoverished by multiple wars and conflicts. Here’s a look at some issues that will arise in the Middle East for Clinton if she wins in November:
First Lady as Diplomat
Even as first lady, Clinton traveled to more than 80 countries with her husband and on her own, helping promote US policy and causes such as supporting the rights of women and children. In March 1999, Clinton stretched a 15-minute meeting with Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak into an hour, pushing an autocratic but important US ally on her concerns about the rights of the country’s minority Coptic Christians.
She toured Israel and the Palestinian territories as first lady several times, once causing a stir by suggesting in 1998 – well before it was US policy – that a genuinely independent Palestinian state would “be in the long-term interests of the Middle East”. In 1999 she unnerved Israelis when, after embracing Yasser Arafat’s wife Suha, she listened without protest as her Palestinian counterpart alleged that Israel used “poison gas” against Palestinians.
Her subsequent efforts to criticize the allegations – unsubstantiated and hotly denied – didn’t cool an angry Israeli reaction and blistering headlines in New York tabloids ahead of her US Senate run. As president, she would come under growing pressure to step into the Israeli-Palestinian morass, though each presidency following her own husband has seen diminishing returns in pushing peace talks.
Hawkishness on 9/11 and Iraq
The Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks took place during Clinton’s first year as a US senator. She arrived to the scene of the World Trade Center the next day wearing a mask as dust still hung in the air over lower Manhattan. She called the attack “an act of war” – an early signal of her hawkishness on defense. She then voted in 2002 to grant President George W Bush the broad authority to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, calling it “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
That vote came up repeatedly in her failed 2008 campaign against Obama, who campaigned on and later pulled all American troops out of Iraq – and has been raised by her opponents again in the campaign over the past months. Many in the Middle East do not regret Saddam’s ouster and regional allies allowed US bases in their country to support the war. But many also now fear the Islamic State group, which rose in the chaos of Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s security vacuum.
Clinton also this week used the term “radical Islamism” in discussing the Orlando shooting, a phrase generally avoided by Obama and used often by Republicans, who criticize those who don’t. However, Clinton stressed the need to reach out to all Muslims to “defeat this threat, which is so evil and has got to be denounced by everyone, regardless of religion”.
Arab Spring Embers
Clinton travelled nearly a million miles to 112 countries as secretary of state. While part of an Obama administration effort to “pivot” US diplomatic attention to Asia, Clinton found herself entangled in the Mideast on her first weeks in the job with the Gaza War that ended in 2009. The traditional order of US allies and enemies in the region quickly found itself upended by the Arab Spring.
In her autobiography “Hard Choices”, Clinton recounts walking through Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising. Her realpolitik conclusions after that put her at odds with a more idealistic Obama White House. “I came away worried that they would end up handing the country to the Muslim Brotherhood or the military by default, which in the end is exactly what happened,” she wrote.
Soon the United States, having abandoned Mubarak, found itself blamed by many Egyptians for the rise of the Brotherhood, whose year in power ended in another military takeover. As president, she would have to decide whether to embrace Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi – an authoritarian battling a deadly Islamic State insurgency.
Interventionism and the Limits of Power
Clinton has grown into an interventionist, backing the raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and finding herself arguing in vain for the US to arm moderate rebels in Syria’s civil war, a conflict that still rages today. In Libya, she supported removing dictator Muammar Gaddafi but the results are mixed at best. The country is still an active war zone where rival governments and militias battle. A US ambassador and others were killed on Clinton’s watch, sparking a series of Congressional investigations.
As president, she will have to balance America’s relations with its Sunni allies – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations – with its emerging rapprochement with Shiite power Iran. The Gulf’s distrust of last year’s nuclear deal with Iran will loom large in any Clinton presidency, testing her ability to balance priorities, leverage relationships and manage crises in one of the most explosive corners of the world. She already knows the challenge as she once wrote: “Trying to drive change in the Middle East could feel like banging your head against a brick wall.” – AP