Hillary dramatically rewrites US nuclear weapons policy in the Middle East, then her staff says “never mind”

In the past week, Hillary has dramatically altered US policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Specifically, Hillary is saying that she would launch a nuclear strike on Iran if they launched a nuclear strike on Israel. She is also saying that she wants to extend the US nuclear umbrella beyond Israel, and include other US allies in the Middle East (i.e., we would nuke Iran if they nuked these US allies).

That’s a huge, and newsworthy, change in US policy. First, we don’t admit publicly when and if we are going to use nukes. Hillary just did. That’s big news. Second, defense experts I talk to say that we have never said publicly that we would use nukes to defend Israel (even though this might be assumed, it’s different when you confirm it publicly). Third, we have never before said that we would extend the US nuclear umbrella to defend other countries in the Middle East. Again, Hillary just did.

Whether Hillary has adopted this major change in US nuclear policy simply to curry favor with voters in Pennsylvania is certainly worthy of discussion (one would hope that such policy is made to advance US national security and not to simply win votes). But there is something even more newsworthy to this story. Hillary’s staff twice, yesterday, told the media that Hillary didn’t say what she said. Top Clinton staffer Howard Wolfson said last night that Hillary did not mean to say that she’d use nukes against Iran. And then a second Clinton staffer told CNN that she did not mean to suggest that she would extend the US nuclear umbrella to other countries in the Middle East. Only problem? She did, repeatedly. (UPDATE: In fact, senior Hillary staff denied a third time that Hillary never mentioned using nukes, when she clearly said the US will have “a nuclear response” to Iran.)

So now we have no idea what US nuclear weapons policy would be under Hillary, and neither do our friends or our enemies. That creates an incredibly dangerous situation. One of the hallmarks of the US mutually-assured-destruction (MAD) policy during the Cold War was that the Soviets knew exactly what US policy was. If they used nukes, we would use nukes. There was no confusion. Confusion breeds uncertainty, and uncertainty leads your opponent to act in unexpected ways. And when you’re dealing with nuclear war planning, you don’t want a jittery opponent acting in ways you can’t predict. Iran needs to know what will happen to it if it goes nuclear and attacks Israel (or anyone else). It is not helpful for Iran to think that, per Howard Wolfson and Hillary’s other senior staff, maybe it can get away with a nuclear attack on Israel, or at least Saudi Arabia.

And finally, the same dilemma occurs with regards to our allies. It does no good for our allies, including Israel, to now be speculating that maybe the US won’t defend them should Iran come knocking. That kind of uncertainty could lead our allies to take matters into their own hands, possibly even leading them to pre-emptive war, or even to seek their own nuclear weapons (Israel already has several hundred, but other US allies in the region have none).

Hillary’s public battles with her own staff over the issues of US nuclear policy vis-a-vis Iran and US policy vis-a-vis our overall nuclear umbrella in the Middle East suggest that she doesn’t have a clear, well thought out, policy – that she is simply winging it. If this were official campaign policy, her senior staff would know about it. And you’d think that nuking Iran and extending the US nuclear umbrella to our allies in the Middle East would be a sufficiently important enough policy change for it to have been vetted by Hillary’s staff. Hillary’s staff didn’t even know about the policy – hell, they denied the existence of the policy – because it appears that Hillary made up this new nuclear policy on the fly, and is still honing the details in public as she speaks. So much for the phone ringing at 3am. It’s not clear what Hillary thinks even at 3pm during the light of day.

Let me walk you through the various positions of Hillary and her staff regarding US nuclear policy and the Middle East:

1. Last October, Hillary says it would be wrong to speculate publicly about when and if the US should attack Iran: “I am not going to speculate about when or if they get nuclear weapons.” Hillary also criticized her Democratic opponents for publicly discussing their war plans for the region: “[R]emember, you shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences across the world. And we don’t need that right now.”

2. During the ABC debate a week ago, Hillary implied that she’d nuke Iran if they nuked Israel. She also suggested that the US extend its nuclear umbrella beyond Israel, to protect other Middle Eastern countries from an Irani attack.

“I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course, I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region.”

3. Hillary reiterated her nuclear threat against Iran yesterday, telling ABC that if Iran attacked Israel with nukes, she’d “obliterate them” – widely interpreted to mean that she would nuke Iran.

“I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran,” Clinton said. “In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”

4. Then last night, Senior Clinton campaign aide Howard Wolfson backs off Hillary’s Iran comments, telling Politico’s Ben Smith last night that “she wasn’t referring to, or suggesting, nuclear weapons.”

5. Then, minutes later, Hillary goes on MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann’s show and says explicitly that she would use nuclear weapons against Iran, and that she would consider extending the US nuclear umbrella to other countries in the Middle East besides Israel:

“In order to forestall that, creating some kind of a security agreement [with countries in the region] where we said, no, you do not need to acquire nuclear weapons. If you were the subject of an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran, the United States and hopefully our NATO allies would respond to that as well….

[T]heir use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States, which personally I believe would prevent it from happening. And that we would try to help the other countries that might be intimidated and bullied into submission by Iran because they were a nuclear power, avoid that fate by creating this new security umbrella.”

6. Then, a senior Hillary aide tells CNN that she didn’t mean to imply that she would extend the US nuclear umbrella to other countries in the region, even though this is what she repeatedly said over the past week.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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