Friday, July 25, 2014

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton

Hard Choices Clinton sets herself up to be compared with Dean Acheson by recalling his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at the outset. But her title echoes Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State during the Carter administration. What she is doing is tracing the thread of American foreign policy through the administrations of Democratic presidents to show the continuity of political thinking and foreign involvment. One must remember that Acheson wrote at a time when faith in government was at an all-time high, and many folks read his book before criticizing it. I am not at all sure the same could be said for Clinton’s comprehensive memoir about her four-year (2009-2013) term as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration.

I come away thinking there is perhaps no person with better credentials to be president. She could handle the job, certainly. But we would have to decide if she is the person we want to lead our country and the world into the future. She would be an activist president for sure, clearly convinced that American leadership is all we should or could consider. Clinton blasts critics who proclaimed Obama “led from behind” on Libya, and said his leadership was in fact critical to the success of that international involvement.

Clinton’s time as senator from New York was good preparation for the prodding, jockeying, and cajoling that is done in international forums with government heads of state. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense while Clinton was Secretary of State, expressed a vast admiration for Clinton’s intelligence, experience, restraint, and pragmatism in his own memoir, Duty. Both longtime Washington insiders, Clinton and Gates shared a sense of service, a clear-eyed realism, and a healthy skepticism. I believe they also shared a mutual distrust of Vladimir Putin and both sought to marginalize, where possible, his inputs.

A lot happens in four years when the world is the stage, as Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time as Secretary reminds us. Clinton logged nearly a million miles in her role as Chief Diplomat, though like all managers, she spends more time dealing with and talking about trouble areas than about countries whose troubles were not catastrophic.

Most revealing and interesting for me were her discussions about Syria, Iran, Gaza, Libya, Russia, and Afghanistan, including the Bin Laden raid and Benghazi. She was remarkably open about the steps that led to backdoor talks with Iran, and the calculations she had to make when considering deteriorating situations in Syria, Libya, and Gaza.

The Syria section reveals the calculus around the support for rebels. The Iran talks were equally revealing—Clinton is remarkably frank about her assessment of country rulers and their personal ‘styles.’ It almost reads like a Wikileaks cache in this section and perhaps she is willing to talk about it because of those leaks. When it comes to Gaza, Clinton hauls out the (surely tattered by now) “strong support for Israel” that we have come to expect, but tempers it with unenthusiastic observations about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political history, party backing, and current positions. She managed to avoid the wider invasion of Gaza that we are experiencing now, but consistently reiterated the increasingly critical need and strong support for a two-state solution.

The Edward Snowdon leaks in May 2013 came after Clinton resigned in February 2013. Clinton must have been aware of and not in opposition to the information collected during her tenure…perhaps even using it in fact. It would have been interesting to hear what she would say to Angela Merkel about the taps on Merkel’s personal phone, when Clinton makes the observation that she and Merkel are often considered two of a kind and expresses admiration for what Merkel has been able to do while she has been in office.

Clinton had areas of concern that she championed wherever she went: women’s rights and human rights. She is a tough negotiator and gave plenty of government leaders some restless nights with those “hard choices” she talks about. Clinton recognized and harnessed the power of the connected world, and the tendency of the world to shrink as telecommunications, cell phone connection, and social media improved. Fortunately, she is not afraid of changes in the status of women, LGBT citizens, and minority voices, and instead welcomes them.

She recognizes that all talent will be needed in a 21st Century world facing climate change, shifts in energy dependencies, and the economic upheavals that will bring. We cannot afford to shun anyone with a good idea and had better take advantage of all the skills our citizens can bring. It’s a question of making sure they are all able to grasp opportunity when it presents itself. I like this concept a lot, and think her insistence on human and economic and political rights for all citizens may be her longest legacy.

Clinton felt so strongly about energy policy, economics, and the interdependencies of trade that her role as a wide-view activist Secretary of State surely encroached on the roles of other cabinet-level officials. In her memoir she sounds positively Presidential in making decisions, deciding directions, and in the scope and definition of her role. Obama had much on his plate in handling domestic intransigence so he was probably pleased to have someone with Clinton’s understanding, reach, and clout. She says they worked well together, and I’m sure it worked about as well as any team with high stakes and powerful players.

What struck me as I listened to Clinton’s memoir is the number of times familiar names were recycled again and again in different jobs, some from much earlier administrations, as though they are the only ones who could handle the work. I suppose it is true that experience counts, but isn’t that one reason Obama was elected to office…that he actually didn’t have all the experience (and all the baggage)? Foreign countries trying to keep tabs on who is doing what in the American government must be pleased they don't have to research the background of anyone new. There simply has to be some transfer of responsibilities to new players: a requirement of top-level posts should be finding and training their own replacements. Sometimes it just sounded like a closed system though I can appreciate the time constraints in finding someone able to handle a task effectively and with grace. If anyone is interested in trying to solve the intractable problems involved with government work, they should make their wishes known, and be known, because it is who you know that counts.

I do not think there is any certainty about Hillary Clinton taking on another campaign for President, though there is probably no person better equipped to handle her activist agenda, despite her age. She is both revered and feared at home and abroad. Enormously motivated, she believes she has and can still make a difference in people’s lives. I feel confident that this seasoned political actor wants to see what American voters decide in November 2014. [Biden says he is doing the same.] If the attitudes and will of the American people were to significantly change the balance of power in the Congress in favor of Republicans, she may be swayed one way or the other. On the other side of the equation, the Democrats must find and field another credible candidate for Clinton to relax her sense of responsibility. In many ways, we'd be lucky to have her--she is a dogged American proponent. She can't be the only person able to take this on, though we have seen what lack of leadership has done for other countries, the Middle East in particular. That wouldn't happen on Clinton's watch.

Readers who lived through this period may feel they’ve “heard all that” Clinton has to say, but I don’t think anyone can say they’ve heard it all until they hear it from the woman who did the driving. It was a tumultuous period in world history and it was completely enlightening to hear what our Chief Diplomat had to say about it. Hillary Clinton remains something of a marvel.

Clinton only narrated the introduction and the epilogue, but Kathleen Chalfant had a voice that recreated Clinton’s accents and speaking style so completely, I was unsure sometimes who was narrating. Chalfant did a fantastic job with the place and personal names and the pacing. Simon & Schuster Audio provided a copy of this to me for review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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