Shadow Government

Don’t criticize Hillary Clinton for planning for the worst

By Peter Feaver Secretary Clinton’s awkward Iran statement last week and the extensive efforts at damage control that she did yesterday on Meet the Press underline a basic challenge of statecraft and contingency planning: It is hard not to have Plan B interfere with Plan A. In this case, Plan A is the effort to ...

By Peter Feaver

Secretary Clinton’s awkward Iran statement last week and the extensive efforts at damage control that she did yesterday on Meet the Press underline a basic challenge of statecraft and contingency planning: It is hard not to have Plan B interfere with Plan A.

In this case, Plan A is the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and Plan B concerns what we would do if Plan A fails and Iran succeeds in getting a nuclear weapon. It would be irresponsible of the Obama administration not to be evaluating various Plans B, including the one option Clinton mentioned in her original statement: extending some sort of defensive shield over America’s Middle Eastern friends to neutralize the strategic advantages Iran might hope to derive from their nuclear arsenal. However, press attention to Plan B undermines Plan A because it gives the impression that the United States has resigned itself to living with an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Clinton’s assignment on Meet the Press was to knock down that impression. She did not disavow the defensive shield option of Plan B, unlike White House spinners who had sought to distance Obama from her earlier remarks by claiming they were just her "personal" views (a very odd way to treat the country’s chief diplomat). But she drew sharp lines — and drew them more sharply than President Obama has — concerning Iran’s control of the nuclear fuel cycle, essentially adopting a very hawkish stance concerning Plan A.

Reasonable people can debate whether a defensive shield is a good component of a sound Plan B (no one, not even the most ideologically committed academic realist, I hope, would pretend that it is by itself a sufficient Plan B). But no reasonable person can be dismayed that the Obama administration is doing such contingency planning. And while we debate the merits of this or that component, we should not be punishing the administration for the fact that they are doing contingency planning. It is hard enough to do it well without piling on from those of us on the bench.

Excessive concern about leaks concerning contingency planning can undermine it. Arguably, one of the reasons that the Phase IV planning on Iraq had the problems that it had was due to this concern. In the first term, during the critical coercive diplomacy phase on Iraq, the Bush administration was concerned that leaks about "occupation" planning would undermine the coercion efforts (giving the impression that a long-term occupation was inevitable). That concern may have led the team to unwisely constrain the planning; as a result, Phase IV was considerably under-developed compared to Phases I, II, and III.

Bottom line: let’s constructively critique the various options under consideration, but let’s not punish the administration for considering them.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola