Clinton's "Umbrella of Deterrence" for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE

At last night's debate, George Stephanopoulos asked the candidates if U.S. policy should be to treat an Iranian attack on Israel as if it were an attack on the United States.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, said that he would work to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranians but that he would "take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them from using nuclear weapons or obtaining nuclear weapons, and that would include any threats directed at Israel or any of our allies in the region."

Iran need understand, he said, "that an attack on Israel is an attack on our strongest ally in the region, ...one whose security we consider paramount, and ...that would be an act of aggression that...I would consider an attack that is unacceptable, and the United States would take appropriate action."

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, said that the U.S. "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."

(The headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "Clinton vows 'massive' U.S. retaliation if Iran attacks Israel.")

But more on that umbrella...

That umbrella of deterrence would be offered, Clinton suggested, in order to deter other nations in the region "from feeling that they have to acquire nuclear weapons. You can't go to the Saudis or the Kuwaitis or UAE and others who have a legitimate concern about Iran and say: 'Well, don't acquire these weapons to defend yourself' unless you're also willing to say we will provide a deterrent backup and we will let the Iranians know that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under this security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions."

This is a rather bold proposal. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland proposed something similar in January 2007 when he wrote:

"The United States should also be prepared to extend guarantees of territorial security for Arab states in the Gulf region. Bush should announce that he wants consultations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states -- as well as principal U.S. allies in Europe -- on extending a U.S. or NATO nuclear umbrella over friendly states in the Gulf. This would be a direct defensive response to Iran's destructive drive for a nuclear program that can produce atomic weapons. U.S. guarantees would enable Arab states to forgo developing their own nuclear arsenals, just as the U.S.-Japan bilateral security treaty is intended to keep Japan nuclear-free."

But Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Reagan, says this proposal is a dangerous one.

"It’s one thing to promise to respond to a nuclear attack by a potential global hegemon, the Soviet Union, against a major ally, such as Germany or Japan, especially when Washington has deliberately disarmed them," he wrote last year in The National Interest. "Very different is to promise to protect Jordan or Kuwait, friendly countries, true, but neither historic nor important allies, against an attack by Iran, a regional power without global reach. The latter is an extraordinary extension of a doctrine fraught with danger."

That's because, he wrote, such an umbrella "makes conflict more likely in other ways. First, if the U.S. commitment is not credible, there is no deterrent effect. ...Second, if war erupts, U.S. involvement (assuming America makes good on its promise) is automatic. Washington loses the ability to weigh costs and benefits in the particular case at the particular time...Third, offering to lend America’s military to a friendly nation reduces the latter’s need to develop its own defense and foster its own alliances. This perverse impact of U.S. defense promises and deployments is evident in East Asia today. The primary example is Japan, which only now, six decades after the end of World War II, is debating a more active defense and foreign policy that is commensurate with its abilities and interests."

He calls the policy "reckless."

What say you?

- jpt

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