Need a (Nuclear) Umbrella? Call Hillary

One of the central tenets of the US containment strategy during the Cold War was the belief in Moscow as well as in the capitals of America’s allies across the Atlantic and the Pacific that in a crisis with the Communist powers, Americans would risk New York, Chicago and Los Angeles for London and Bonn, Tokyo and Seoul.

Indeed, US strategy of "extended deterrence" – encapsulated in the metaphor of a "nuclear umbrella" – worked since the Soviet Union was presented with a credible threat of two-front war if they decided to launch nuclear attacks against America’s allies whose security was considered to be a core US national interest.

The extension of America’s nuclear umbrella into Western Europe and East Asia became an integral part of formal agreements with the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Japan and South Korea that had been approved by Congress following an extensive debate in Washington.

This commitment to risk New York for other world capitals reflected the recognition that US interests and those of its allies were compatible as part of a global conflict with a Soviet-led Communist bloc armed with conventional and nuclear arms, posing a direct threat to the US-led Western alliance.

Now, a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, a leading presidential candidate is proposing that the United States provide a similar nuclear umbrella to Israel and other pro-American governments in the Middle East as part of a strategy of containing Iran.

To apply the terminology of the Cold War, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton is suggesting that in a crisis with Iran, Americans would indeed risk New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, for Tel-Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi and perhaps even Cairo and Baghdad.

The idea of extending a US "umbrella of deterrence" into the Middle East – originally an intellectual brainchild of armchair strategists in Washington – was raised by Mrs. Clinton during the recent presidential debate in Philadelphia.

"An attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation from the United States," she declared. "So would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under the security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions," she added, pointing to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as states that had concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

"We’ve got to deter other countries from feeling they have to acquire nuclear weapons," she stressed. Later during an interview with ABC News Mrs. Clinton threatened that if the Iranians launched a nuclear attack on Israel, the Americans "would be able to totally obliterate them."

It was astonishing that one of America’s top public figures who has a better than even chance to become the next occupant of the White House proposed such a major security commitment to states that are not formal military allies of Washington against a midsize regional power that doesn’t pose a direct security threat to the United States.

That Mrs. Clinton’s plan has failed to ignite a serious debate in Washington is equally mind-boggling.

In fact, last year’s famous National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) found that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons development program in the fall of 2003, that it doesn’t have nuclear weapons and that it won’t have the technical capability to process plutonium in order to develop a bomb before 2015.

Yet Mrs. Clinton in her comments seemed to be dismissing the NIE conclusions and taking the side of the hawks in the Bush Administration by assuming that Iran has both the intentions and the capacity to go nuclear. And she is calling for what amounts to a preemptive military action against Iran by extending the "umbrella of deterrence" into the Middle East.

Moreover, Mrs. Clinton seems to disregard some of the major differences between the strategic reality of the Cold War – the threat of a global superpower to the members of the Western alliance, and the current situation in the Middle East, dominated by a multitude of national, ethnic and religious conflicts where Iran doesn’t pose a direct and immediate threat – and certainly not the only threat – to those who supposedly seek America’s nuclear umbrella.

Hence Israel is still in a state of war with Saudi Arabia that continues to back the Palestinians in their struggle against the Israelis. In fact, from the perspective of the Saudis and other pro-American Arab states, it is the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and not Iranian ambitions – that poses the main threat to their interests and long-term stability.

At the same time, the Arabs insist that Israel renounce its own nuclear military capability with which the Jewish state could deter the potential threat of a nuclearized Iran, not unlike the way the two nuclear powers of South Asia, India and Pakistan, deter each other.

In any case, the next US president will be in a position to negotiate a grand diplomatic bargain with Iran that will create even less incentives for the Iranians to go nuclear and that could even open the door for some sort of détente between Iran and Israel.

Extending the US nuclear umbrella into the Middle East will only drive the Iranians to acquire nuclear military power and draw the United States deeply into the Middle East cauldron, ensuring that Washington will continue investing much of their diplomatic energy in that region to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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