How Hillary Clinton’s new book hurts her presidential dream
by Raoul Heinrichs
What a difference one year makes.
By the end of her tenure as Secretary of State in early 2013, Hillary Clinton’s health was failing badly. In February, while recovering from a virus, she fainted and suffered a concussion that left her hospitalized and out of action for a month. She was then diagnosed with a blood clot in her brain, a thyroid condition, and abnormal heart rhythms.
Four years of frenetic activity in the job, including an unremitting travel schedule, had taken their toll. Clinton had worked herself beyond the point of exhaustion, right to the limits of her physical endurance. The prognosis was not good. If the boundless ambition remained, her ability to pursue it, to bring it to fruition through her familiar brand of political doggedness, was now seriously in doubt.
Today, little more than a year later, Hillary is back. Determination and ambition very much intact, her return to public life has been announced with the release of her book Hard Choices, about the crises and challenges she faced as America’s chief diplomat in the Obama Administration during its tumultuous first term.
The political memoir has, with exceptions, always resided at the more conventional end of the literary spectrum. The elder statesperson, after a long, distinguished career, sits down to chronicle their experience, usually in sleep-inducing prose. There’s a menu of predictable motives: to entrench a legacy, qualify a controversy, settle bureaucratic scores, convey wisdoms arrived at through bitter experience, and generally ensure a place in the popular historical consciousness.
Hard Choices doesn’t actually tick a great many of these boxes but it does conform to the style guide. The language is lucid to the point of sterility, and any hint of colorful expression consistently gives away to what feels like the prose-equivalent of the unforgiving fluorescent light inside a 7-11 at midnight. The book is also structured in a way that evokes all the excitement, tone, and rhythm of a State Department briefing pack. The key difference being that, at 660 pages, Hard Choices is longer than anything you might devour on a transatlantic flight, certainly after the Hunger Games 2 and soggy casserole.
Hard Choices goes some way to satisfying other conventions of the genre as well, but not all of them. Because Hillary Clinton is not yet at the end of her career, anyone expecting the Washington-insider’s-nothing-to-lose-tell-all is in for disappointment. Clinton is a woman with plenty to lose. In that sense the book reveals more about her present and future than it does about her past. And mostly, of course, it needs to be read as the cover letter on her job application to become President in 2016.
So here’s the political backdrop. Since leaving her post as Secretary of State in 2013, Clinton has been balancing conflicting imperatives, with a view to returning to the White House. On the one hand, she’s had to signal an intention to fight for the Democratic nomination, garnering support and deterring other would-be candidates on her on side of the fence from entering the race. On the other, she’s had to avoid being officially drawn on her intentions, for fear of being pre-emptively mauled by an unholy alliance of Republicans and right-wing pundits.
This has worked well until now, but for someone with Clinton’s profile, the small-target strategy has a limited shelf life. At a certain point she was always going to have to take the initiative. The publication of Hard Choices marks the first step in her return to public life, and, one suspects, her transition from presumptive to actual presidential nominee.
As the transformation occurs, however, new problems arise. How does an insider like Clinton captivate an electorate disillusioned by Washington’s insider political culture? Even more pressing, how does she put distance between herself and the current administration, which is heading for lame-duck status, without driving a wedge in the party? To go on a populist offensive against Obama risks alienating the very people she’ll need to knock on doors, raise money, and inundate Facebook and Twitter in support of her campaign.
To the second question at least, Hard Choices begins to offer the germ of an answer. It is to differentiate herself from the Administration on foreign rather than domestic policy. Domestic Hillary only makes the odd cameo in Hard Choices, but her goal is to placate the donors and operatives who will ultimately propel her into the top job. As such, she’ll have limited scope to depart from Obama’s script. That’s ok, because Clinton’s default settings are liberal. At home, she’ll position herself as the most effective guardian of Obama’s legacy, committed to advancing the agenda on healthcare, welfare, immigration, and the environment.
International Hillary has more wiggle-room to distance herself, and she’s using that to wiggle herself into the role of foreign policy hard-liner. Where Clinton does criticize the Obama administration, each account in the book is structured the same way. A foreign policy emergency arises, challenging US interests and resolve. Over at Foggy Bottom (home of the State Department), Hillary takes a stand. Sometimes it’s on principle, other times on cold calculations of power. Then, as if on cue, she is thwarted by the White House, whose chief occupant and his advisers are either too risk averse or too wedded to a sentimental worldview to implement her bold, decisive plan of action. The plan is abandoned, America loses, and history metes out the consequences.
In Iran, we discover, Hillary wanted to support the pro-democratic “Green Movement.” Obama demurred, and the movement was crushed. In Syria, she called for arming and training moderate rebels. Once again, the White House vetoed, and once again the bad guys, in this case Bashar al-Assad and his army, gained the upper hand. When Clinton’s preference for standing-by Egypt’s embattled former President was ignored, the result was bloodshed, upheaval, the Muslim Brotherhood, more bloodshed, and eventually the return of the old guard in the form of a de-facto military government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Finally, where Hillary advocated taking a harder line against Putin, Obama soft-peddled—and now, well, Crimea belongs to Moscow and Putin is on the march.
Hard Choices is good politics. But as a guide to the intricacies of statecraft or a defense of Clinton’s tenure at State, it is far less compelling. That’s not because she can’t point to a signature foreign policy achievement, as some have suggested.
Clinton’s is a more fundamental failing. Secretaries of State need to be the intellectual architects of American foreign policy. They need to see through the Washington groupthink. The role means coming up with a realistic conception of American interests and a way of translating those into clear priorities and a plan of action.
Clinton’s book contains no trace of this, nor any sense that it might have been a job requirement. Instead, she embraces a kind of packet-mix approach to foreign policy. In the absence of overarching ideas, she travels relentlessly. She shakes hands, pats backs and gives lots of speeches, all for little or no real effect. Devoid of logic, process becomes the end in itself.
Ultimately, for all Clinton’s tenacity and commitment to the role, it’s hard to avoid a bleak conclusion. Meetings, briefings, visits, dinners, summits—these are the easy aspects of diplomacy. Coming up with an organizing principle for how to prioritize them, for harnessing them in support of American interests, that’s where the real “hard choices” needed to be made, yet that’s precisely where Hillary failed.
Title image source: blogs.reuters.com