Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hard Choices by Cyrus Vance

Hard choices: Critical years in America's foreign policy This book was published in 1983, and in the Foreword Vance is forthright in stating “This book is not a diplomatic history or even a memoir.” It is instead Vance’s take on his four years as Secretary of State; his choices, the administration’s decisions, and what Vance hoped to achieve. Vance was Secretary of State during three years of the Jimmy Carter presidency: 1977-1980. He resigned in protest when Carter decided to go ahead with Operation Eagle Claw, the secret mission to rescue hostages in Iran.

Lawrence Wright’s latest book Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, about the Camp David Accords, led me to consider Cyrus Vance. When I learned that the book of his time in office was called Hard Choices, I had to have a look. Surely Hillary Clinton meant to echo Vance in some way with her own memoir of the same name recounting her own time as Secretary of State for the Obama administration.

What I found was that Clinton may have been pointing to a thread running through U.S. foreign policy at least since Vance which states that the world is what we make it and that we must use all the tools—not just military might—to effect the changes we want to see. Pressure on human rights is a big one that stands out, and, right from the time of the Camp David Accords comes a firm insistence by the U.S. that Israel stop occupation in disputed territory.

What Vance says in his final chapter named “Hard Choices” is worth thinking about with Hillary Clinton’s echo of his sentiment in mind:
”This book has been about managing the foreign affairs of our country in times of great change, about setting priorities and striving not to be diverted by the agendas of others, about living in a practical world that compels hard choices. This does not suggest that the affairs of state should be reckoned without regard for principle. To the contrary, it requires that our goals and priorities be infused with our inherited values and principles, It requires that we recognize what can be done and what cannot be done. It requires that we be idealistic, not ideological, and that we be unafraid to admit past mistakes and take prudent chances. It compels us to recognize that it is not a sign of weakness to negotiate compromises that are in our interest, and that in trying to achieve too much too fast, the best can become the enemy of the good.”

This is definitely Clinton’s philosophy: that “the best can become the enemy of the good.” She is practical and non-ideological when it comes to affairs of state. We do what we can to the best of our ability, and we move ahead, adhering to principle, making improvements to our compromises as we can. It can’t be called a doctrine, but it is a set of guidelines for policy. I don’t think anyone looking at Clinton’s time in office could accuse her of not being practical. She sets her goals high, but seems to acknowledge there are things the U.S. couldn’t/shouldn’t seek to change. We see that Clinton’s emphasis on human rights comes right down the line from other Democrat administrations, for Vance says early in the book, “I shared fully the president’s commitment to weave the defense of human rights throughout the fabric of American foreign policy.”

Hillary Clinton was working as a lawyer in Arkansas when Vance was Secretary of State. Carter had appointed her head of Legal Services Corp., an organization that provides federal funds to legal-aid bureaus throughout the United States. Her husband Bill was Governor of Arkansas. Clinton grew up on the need to push hard for the changes one wants to see, and by reminding us of Vance’s own book called Hard Choices, we can take that to mean that she will continue doing just that.

A final note: Vance was very open about his criticism of Henry Kissinger’s attempt to view the world as though a chessboard with only superpower interests. He thought it damaged our perceptions and positions vis-à-vis the Middle East and states in Africa, perhaps even allowed the flourishing of disaffection and terror. Clinton would agree with him on that as well.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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