'Barack, Be Bold!': What Hillary's Parting Advice Should Be

An Essay By Erich Follath

Photo Gallery: Obama's Foreign Policy Challenges Photos
Pete Souza/ White House

Hillary Clinton has amassed a wealth of frontline experience as US secretary of state, but she will soon be stepping down. Before leaving, though, she's in an excellent position to give her boss some good advice on America's foreign policy challenges. SPIEGEL envisions her fictional farewell letter.

An American president's first term in office is viewed as a practice round of sorts, while the second term is the crucial one, the one that counts toward his historic legacy. You had barely been elected to the White House in 2008, and had just defined a few basic tenets of your policy, when you were forced to make compromises with both your political rivals and your own party to prepare for the next election. Now you no longer have this burden. As far as your career is concerned, you don't have to make allowances for anything or anyone, lobbying groups and donors of all stripes included. In our system, a president hasn't had more than two shots in a long time, and that's a good thing.

There are enormous risks and opportunities ahead, but they are mainly your risks and opportunities, even if a Republican-controlled House of Representatives will try to thwart you here and there. Many presidents, after initial difficulties, have used their second term in optimal ways, becoming historic figures in the process. Take Woodrow Wilson, for example, who established the League of Nations in 1919, his penultimate year in office. If we ignore Franklin D. Roosevelt for a moment, a special case because of World War II, which enabled him to remain in office from 1933 until his death in 1945, there were 12 presidents before you who served for two terms. You could become one of the best second-term presidents ever. One for the history books. The first black president, a conciliator, a peacemaker. And I don't mean that in the Messianic, promising-the-impossible sense. By now, everyone has figured out that you can't walk on water -- even you.

You know me: I don't tell you what you want to hear. We've had our differences. In fact, there were even some bitter and personal attacks in the fight for the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2008. But then we treated each other with great respect in the administration. We are both progressive pragmatists. We've achieved quite a bit in the last four years, and we've also missed some opportunities. Strategic depth wasn't exactly our strength. My reasons for leaving the State Department are purely personal. The distance I'm gaining at the moment helps me see things more clearly -- hence the advice, some of which will probably puzzle you.

Many are advising you now to focus on domestic issues. You could enhance that with a few relatively unproblematic foreign policy initiatives. You could lift the pointless embargo on Cuba, thereby weakening the Castro regime. And you could upgrade China's Asian neighbors with military alliances, depriving our bankers in Beijing of some of their aggressiveness, essentially leading from behind. The effective management of a comprehensive withdrawal from Afghanistan would also help, and be careful not to let our military leaders convince you to leave thousands of our troops behind. On the domestic front, do everything to promote the economic recovery at home, tighten gun laws, close the disgraceful Guantanamo Bay detention camp and improve our miserable infrastructure, which makes America look like a third-world country. In short, do some nation-building at home.

Navigating the Middle East Minefield

But don't be deceived. Foreign policy will catch up to you in your second term. Like some 800-pound guerilla, it'll turn up in the Oval Office and force its way into the spotlight. You can leave the Europeans to their permanent hibernation when it comes to global policy, to their obsession with themselves. But we don't have that luxury, and nor should we. Isolationism would be just as devastating a concept as the opposite policy was under your predecessor: striking out mindlessly without regard for international agreements.

Yes, I know, the Middle East is a minefield. Not everything is going the way we want it to between Cairo and Gaza, Jerusalem and Tehran. You, Barack, have gotten yourself into some hot water there with well-intended but poorly thought-out initiatives. But now a few things have changed fundamentally. 2013 is a year of destiny. Compared to the last few decades, the prospects for an American initiative have never been as promising as they are today. What is needed is courage to confront both friends (Israel) and enemies (Iran). And it won't work without creativity, diplomatic pressure and a few ugly but pragmatic compromises.

In January, as one of the first official acts of your second term, you should appoint a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian nuclear issue. The combination of these two issues will attract a great deal of attention, but in the region -- except perhaps in Jerusalem and Tehran -- it will meet with great approval. For the Arab world, these complex issues belong together. You should make it clear that you believe this, as well, and you should make sure that the diplomat you choose makes the greatest possible impression.

I'd like to suggest someone, a man you know well and a man I know even better. But the fact that this was my idea has to remain our secret. Take Bill Clinton for the job, and tell my successor John Kerry that for the time being he'll have to play second fiddle when it comes to foreign policy in the region. Provide Bill with extensive authority, a high-level staff and a large office. They don't need to be interns. Combine the appointment with a programmatic speech to the people of the region, similar to the one you gave in Cairo three-and-a-half years ago. But make it clear that this time the words will be followed by action. The motto should be: Startle your friends with threats and amaze your enemies with promises.

Fundamental Regional Change

There's no way around it: You have to tangle with (Israeli Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu. And you also have to offer (Iranian Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei direct negotiations with both extensive concessions and clearly defined limits. I know, it sounds naïve. But it could work, because, despite the loudmouthed rhetoric from Jerusalem and Tehran, a fundamental change has taken place in the region, a change that turns Israel and Iran into losers. And believe me, they both know it.

We have feared the rise of radical Shiites for decades, the threat of an Iranian-dominated, militantly anti-Western "arc of crisis." Iran plus Iraq plus Syria plus the powerful group Hezbollah in Lebanon plus the terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip -- it was our nightmare.

That threat is now history, at least for the foreseeable future. Hezbollah remains on Tehran's side (for now), and there is (limited) Iranian influence in Iraq. But the Sunni group Hamashas distanced itself from Tehran. And, very critically, the ayatollahs have all but lost their most important ally in the region. The demise of the Assad regime in Syria seems to be a matter of weeks, or months at the most. Whatever the new leadership in Damascus looks like, it will likely be run by the country's Sunni majority and be critical of Tehran.

New Arc of Power

In truth, a new arc has formed across the Middle East. From Turkey to Egypt to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Sunni-dominated regions are setting the tone. If I were president in Tehran, I would be very concerned about the tectonic shift of power.

This development, in connection with the tough economic sanctions against Iran, has already been very effective. The leadership is worried. Nevertheless, it's unlikely that it will abandon its nuclear ambitions as a result. The regime is unquestionably pursuing the bomb. One faction wants to go all the way, including nuclear tests. The other faction "only" wants to be place itself in the technical position to flick the switch, if necessary, from a civilian nuclear program to a weapons program. There is no third faction, not even within the repressed opposition. We have to prevent the worst from happening by proposing a grand bargain, a comprehensive offer.

We won't be able to avoid making some painful concessions: We will officially grant the Iranians the right to enrich uranium to a level of 5 percent, and the right to produce small amounts of medically relevant materials, enriched to 20 percent. In return, we expect the transfer of large amounts of highly enriched material to Turkey or Russia, under international supervision. And ratification of the supplementary protocol, which grants United Nations inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency permanent and unannounced access to the Iranian facilities.

As soon as this process has begun, the economic sanctions will be gradually lifted. The establishment of mutual trust could lead to the resumption of diplomatic relations, and Washington's de facto recognition that Iran is an important regional power and that regime change through subversive measures is not on our agenda.

Does this approach guarantee that Tehran's nuclear program will remain peaceful? Probably not. We're past the point at which we could prevent Iran from reaching the "breakout capacity" that allows it to flick the switch. We can only make this decision as difficult as possible for the Iranians, and make the physical production of a bomb a distant possibility.

I am convinced that the Iranian leadership is primarily pursuing its nuclear program to remain in power. The country wants to be treated like a nuclear power, so we should behave as if it were. It's our best chance to prevent Iran from taking extreme measures. The people in charge in Tehran aren't suicidal, except perhaps President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to whom a certain amount of apocalyptic lunacy could be ascribed. But he'll be history in June, when he will no longer be able to run for re-election. His potential successor, Ali Larijani, as the former head of the country's nuclear authority, will be a very tough negotiator -- but also a very rational and realistic one. Incidentally, I'd venture to say that Larijani, as the author of philosophical textbooks, is more familiar with Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative that most of our colleagues in Washington.

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