For the Middle East, no Secretary of State would be better than Bill.
By Aaron Magid
Rumors have been flying in Washington since current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she would be stepping down from her position at the beginning of President Obama’s second term. On November 13, CBS News reported that administration officials consider Susan Rice, current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the favorite for the position due to her close ties with the president. Though Rice has strong credentials, an influential and deeply knowledgeable figure in Middle East policy has been consistently left out of this discussion: former President Bill Clinton.
The next secretary of state will have a difficult act to follow. During Hillary’s term, America skillfully brought an end to the tyrannical rule of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya without sacrificing a single American life. Furthermore, early on in the Arab Spring, America sided with opposition groups against the brutal regimes in Syria and Egypt. Though Obama’s policies toward the Middle East are less unpopular in Arab countries than those of his predecessor, America’s image in the region today has not improved.
But the next secretary of state will have to tackle issues far greater than simply improving America’s image. The civil war in Syria has intensified with over 30,000 believed dead, and threatens to turn into a full-blown regional conflict. The impasse over Iran’s nuclear program continues. Violence has commenced once again between Israel and Hamas. America needs a secretary of state with sufficient experience and international respect to deal with these grave issues.
Ambassador Rice has an impressive background. Before serving as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, she worked as a senior national security advisor during President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Yet her comments during the recent Libyan embassy crisis about the attacks being “spontaneous” and unrelated to terrorist organizations have been the subject of fierce criticism by leading congressional officials. Even many sympathetic to Rice admit that it would be politically unwise for President Obama to nominate her. Rice would have to undergo a grueling Senate confirmation with Republicans attacking her along with the president’s record during these events. Senator Lindsey Graham has already voiced his opposition to her nomination claiming, “Susan Rice needs to be held accountable.” Given the President’s need to work across the aisle with Republican leaders in Congress on critical issues such as immigration and the national debt, Obama’s selection of Rice as secretary of state would be an unnecessary distraction from the rest of his policies while alienating Republican leaders.
Former President Clinton would be the wisest choice for the position both strategically and diplomatically. In foreign policy, he offered the most comprehensive final status solution, the 2000 Clinton parameters, to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis — a proposal that many experts still say is a basis for ending the conflict today. Furthermore, in response to repeated violations by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of previous agreements, President Clinton authorized a firm military response demonstrating American resolve, without miring the United States in a lengthy ground war. He’s proved himself capable of dealing with the current tension with Iran.
From a political perspective, nominating Bill Clinton would be a brilliant maneuver for President Obama. According to poll conducted in September 2012 by the New York Times, Bill Clinton is more popular than any time during the past 20 years with an overall 66% approval rating among American voters. Instead of facing a fight with Republican leaders by backing Ambassador Rice, in supporting Bill Clinton, Obama could acquire political capital with the American public and Congress that in turn could help him tackle difficult problems at home and in the Middle East.
After serving as president, Bill Clinton continued with his efforts in improving America’s standing abroad. He established the William J. Clinton Foundation, which promotes humanitarian causes overseas including improved treatment for individuals with HIV and AIDS. Even Republican Senator John McCain has recently suggested that President Clinton serve as a Middle East envoy due to his years of experience and expertise. After eight years as president, Bill has excellent relations with a wide variety of foreign leaders, an important qualification for any secretary of state. Finally, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently at an impasse, President Clinton could help reignite the peace process as he personally dealt with this issue for almost his entire eight-year presidency.
Political pundits have credited Obama’s foreign policy team for a successful first four years. Yet, especially in the Middle East, his next term’s foreign policy appears even more daunting. America needs a strong and experienced secretary of state. America and the Middle East need Bill!
Aaron Magid is a Staff Writer for the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs. He tweets at: @AaronMagid
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