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POLITICS-US: Hillary Urges Talks with Syria, Iran, North Korea

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Nov 1 2006 (IPS) - In a major policy address, Sen. Hillary Clinton Tuesday called for a “sea change” in U.S. foreign policy that would include direct talks with Syria, Iran and North Korea and greater U.S. engagement in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Let us never negotiate from fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,” she declared, quoting former President John Kennedy. “Direct negotiations are not a sign of weakness, they’re a sign of leadership.”

The speech, delivered at the New York headquarters of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, also called for a “phased redeployment” of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year designed in part to “force the Iraqi government to… begin to do more to resolve their own political situation.” She called the current political situation there a “complete absurdity”.

Clinton said Washington needed a bipartisan policy based on a blend of “both idealism and realism in the service of American interests” in which diplomacy is given a much higher value than the administration of President George W. Bush has accorded.

“This administration’s choices were false ones,” she declared. “Internationalism versus unilateralism; realism versus idealism… I think it’s fair to say we are now all internationalists and we are all realists,” she added.

The speech, which marks her strongest criticism of the administration to date, came just one week before the Nov. 7 mid-term elections in which Democrats are expected to wrest control of at least the House of Representatives and possibly of the Senate, as well. Clinton herself is expected to be re-elected by a landslide next Tuesday.

The acknowledged, albeit undeclared, front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Clinton has generally been cautious in her criticism of the administration’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the “war on terror”, Iraq, and the Middle East.

She has focused more on the administration’s alleged incompetence, than on its overall strategy, particularly regarding Iraq where, until relatively recently, she opposed withdrawing U.S. troops, a position that has alienated the party’s activist base.

But with the Iraq war having become increasingly unpopular, even among Republican candidates, and a growing number of voters seemingly losing confidence in Bush’s conduct of the “war on terror,” Clinton has apparently decided to become bolder in her attacks on the administration, as she was Tuesday, even as she appealed for bipartisan support. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who has harshly – but only rarely (apparently in order not to steal the limelight from his spouse) – criticised Bush’s foreign policy, told a private gathering Tuesday evening that he had helped draft the speech.

The senator said three principles should underlie a “bipartisan consensus” on national security: the renewal “by word and deed” of “internationalism for a new century,” in which Washington accords a “decent respect for the opinions” of other nations; an affirmation that direct negotiations with enemies “are not a sign of weakness;” and the blending of idealism and realism which she said had long characterised traditional U.S. diplomacy “until a small group of ideologues” – an apparent reference to neo-conservatives and other hawks – came to power under this administration.

“This administration has abandoned [the] tension [between realism and idealism] for a simplistic division of the world into good and evil. They refuse to talk to anyone on the evil side,” she said. “Some have called that idealistic. I call it dangerously unrealistic,”

“These three principles would force a sea change from the current administration’s policies,” she went on, noting that in virtually every dangerous situation faced by the U.S. today, “you will see the same mistakes repeated over and over: the mistaken belief that alliances, international institutions [are] irrelevant to American interests, the mistaken belief that diplomacy, even if backed by force, is synonymous with weakness; the mistaken belief that our military’s experience in war planning, our intelligence community’s objective analysis, and our diplomats’ experience in negotiations could be dismissed…”

On Iraq, she said “we need a fundamental change in course” based on three main components: the establishment of an oil trust that would guarantee each individual Iraqi an annual share in the country’s oil wealth that could be used as a tactic to help resolve the sectarian conflict over the distribution of oil revenues that is central to the current impasse; the convening of a public international conference that would include all of Iraq’s neighbours, including Syria and Iran, to ensure the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and prevent civil war; and a phased redeployment of U.S. troops that will “get the attention of the Iraqi leadership” and prevent U.S. troops from being “put in the crossfire of a civil war”.

On Afghanistan, Clinton accused the administration of “inattention and false optimism… that are costing lives.” In particular, Washington should respond to NATO’s call for more troops in Afghanistan and “improve the security situation with Pakistan.”

“We know the general area where the leaders of the Taliban and probably the leaders of al Qaeda are,” she said in a veiled reference to the tribal areas in Pakistan, from which the Pakistani army has recently withdrawn. “It is a failure of our policies on all fronts that five years (after their ouster), they are sending waves of fighters into Afghanistan from their safe havens.”

On Iran, she said, “U.S. policy must be unequivocal. Iran must not build or acquire nuclear weapons.” But while Washington should keep all options on the table, it should also be “ready to talk directly to Iranians should the right opportunity present itself.”

Such talks, she said would convey “two important messages: first, to the Iranian people that our quarrel is with their leaders, not with them; and second, to the international community that we are pursuing every available peaceful avenue to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state.”

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she charged the administration with “disengag[ing] at crucial moments,” although she indicated support for reported plans by Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the democratically elected Hamas government. “As events unfold, we need to be prepared, in close coordination with our Israeli ally, to resume America’s indispensable role in finding a just and lasting resolution,” she added.

She also came out squarely for bilateral talks with North Korea, noting that all of Pyongyang’s neighbours have called for direct negotiations. Past engagement with the North, she noted in an implicit reference to her husband’s policies from 1994 to 2001, had prevented Pyongyang from developing plutonium bombs and testing long-range missiles, both of which it has done in the last four months.

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