Mixed legacy

Hillary Clinton details her years as secretary of state in a dispassionate, long-winded account that overshadows her presidential ambitions.

Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in November 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in November 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just before Thanksgiving Day in 2012, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton found herself on a dusty highway between Ramallah – the seat of the Palestinian Authority government – and Jerusalem. Her staff suddenly received word that a rocket had been fired from Gaza. It caused a momentary crisis as security guards evacuated a van and moved into an armored SUV in the convoy. Clinton was relaxed, focusing on the goal: “I would have to broker a cease-fire between implacable and distrustful adversaries against the backdrop of the region in turmoil.”
With Hamas and Israel once again at war, her book Hard Choices sheds light on some of the recurring issues facing Israel-US relations, among many other policies she oversaw.
Clinton is an enigmatic figure in US politics. A one-time lightning rod for criticism and even hate during her husband’s presidency in the 1990s because of her support of health-care reform, she steeled herself against an adversarial public and press to run for the New York Senate seat and then become secretary of state in 2009. It is this latter period on which she focuses, through 2013. A previous book, Living History, was more memoir and autobiography.
Many believe she will run for president in 2016, and this book seeks to burnish her credentials. As such, it forms a strange place in US political memoir history. Unlike President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, it isn’t a “life story” book for voters, and it doesn’t contain a “plan” for the future. But unlike foreign policy memoirs such as Henry Kissinger’s library-length tomes, this book isn’t grounded in an intellectual or grand-policy-strategy framework.
She opens her book by noting that she has visited 112 countries and traveled a million miles, and she discusses her personal relationship with Obama, with whom she claims she became friends after a divisive campaign in the Democratic primaries.
“One silver lining of [my] defeat [at Obama’s hands] was that I came out of the experience realizing I no longer cared so much about what critics said about me,” she writes.
Clinton says she admires former US secretaries of state, referencing William Seward, who served under Abraham Lincoln: “He was one of the leading lights of his day, a principled reformer.” Interestingly enough, the previous office holder, Condoleezza Rice, was also an admirer of Seward; she kept his portrait in her outer office.
The main problems and strengths of Clinton’s telling are clear from the first chapters. She organizes her memoir by region and country, which probably makes more sense than doing it chronologically because readers would get lost in the details. As such, she can look at her policy in each country. But little of her passion or vision comes through. It is sort of a boilerplate analysis of each country’s relative strengths and US policy.
Regarding Indonesia, for instance, she parrots the refrain that it is “blending democracy, Islam, modernity and women’s rights in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.”
Except it isn’t. Indonesia has become more reactionary and conservative, with “modesty patrols” and widespread abuse of minorities, including the outlawing of the Muslim Ahmadiya sect.
Dealing with North Korea, Clinton makes tepid remarks about normalizing relations “if they would completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons.”
It isn’t that her discussions are naïve. Her views on China, Russia and the Middle East are colored by previous US experience, and she provides a clear and concise narrative of US interests in each place, admitting US wrongdoing where she see it – such as the legacy of the US’s bombing of Laos in the 1970s. But she is also not given to self-critique.
In her discussion of the “reset” with Russia, her continuing frustration with Russia’s apparent non-reset attitude boils down to “I spent time over the years thinking about ways to understand [Vladimir] Putin.” After being burned time and again by the clear Russian chauvinism in Ukraine, support for Syria and Iran, and meddling in the Caucasus, she notes, “We should hit the pause button on new efforts [of cooperation with Russia].
Don’t flatter Putin with high-level attention... make clear that Russian intransigence wouldn’t stop us from pursuing our interests.”
This is good advice, but there is little critique of the reset’s obvious failure, or acknowledgment that Putin thought Obama particularly feeble in foreign policy. There is no explanation of how to roll back Russia in Ukraine or the Caucasus and where to draw the line against Putin’s militancy.
Clinton’s views on the Middle East are equally balanced not to provoke. Hamas is an “extremist Palestinian group... designated by the US as a terrorist organization in 1997.” That’s a nice cop-out so she doesn’t have to have an opinion on whether it is a terrorist group. Discussing the regional role of Qatar, which is seen to support Hamas, she notes that it “has little in the way of democracy or respect for universal human rights, but it has maintained strong strategic and security ties with the US.”
As with other analyses, her conclusion about the cease-fire Israel and Hamas achieved in 2012 is upbeat and pragmatic: “The cease-fire held better than anyone expected. In 2013 Israel enjoyed the quietest year in a decade.... I continue to believe that over the long run nothing will do more to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish-democratic state than a comprehensive peace based on two states for two peoples.” This reads like her speechwriter could have written it. There is no passion or real vision beyond the well-known US approach to the conflict.
The US is in need of a foreign policy based on a vision, and it has had such policies in the past, such as Richard Nixon’s opening to China, Harry Truman’s decision to implement containment or Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic “make the world safe for democracy” agenda. Clinton served at a crucial time, and if her book is any window into her actual views, she has basically adopted a relatively conservative, institutional and pragmatic approach. Besides her frequent remarks about civil liberties and freedom of speech in countries she has visited, which show an obvious commitment or stated commitment to these values, this book unfortunately does not shed light on any scandals, internal feuds over US policy, or prescription for the future of that policy.