Hard Choices begins and ends in the empty voice of a campaign speech. But in between, it contains a clear and at times riveting account of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s four years as secretary of state.
This is a careful book, written tactically to burnish friendships and avoid making enemies. Perhaps that’s inevitable for an autobiographer who is considering running for president, but there are times when the reader feels he is being spun rather than enlightened. For example, that Clinton and former national security advisor James L. Jones clashed bitterly over the role of her Afghanistan advisor, Richard Holbrooke. But you would barely realize that from the anodyne account she provides.
Judged as a political document, the book will probably serve Clinton well. It lays out the case that she was a good secretary of state and a good person; it includes a forceful defense of her role in Benghazi, along with many believable passages about her enduring love for her sometimes faithless husband, Bill. There’s nothing here that seems likely to get her in trouble with anyone, which is doubtless good politics but a bad thing to say about a memoir.
The obvious point of comparison is Duty, the recently published tell-all by former secretary of defense Robert Gates. That was an incautious book. One sensed that Gates had decided to let it rip, damn the consequences. That’s what the best memoirists do, and it’s a noble standard. But then, Gates can afford to tell the unvarnished truth; he isn’t planning to run for anything.
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The book bolsters her reputation as a strong “representational” diplomat who carried the flag to 112 countries. But the meaty middle of Hard Choices does something more than chronicle the frequent-flier miles: It provides evidence that Clinton displayed good judgment as secretary of state and understood some important issues earlier than her boss, President Barack Obama.
What did Clinton get right? On her first trip overseas, in February 2009, she began a “pivot” to Asia, an approach Obama increasingly embraced over the next three years. She assessed the Arab Spring correctly, endorsing the spirit of change but urging a slower, “orderly” transition away from the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. She was dead-on about Syria, understanding after the breakdown of Kofi Annan’s Geneva mediation process in mid-2012 that it was necessary to start arming the moderate Syrian opposition. She got the Osama bin Laden raid right, urging Obama to attack the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound when other advisers such as Gates balked at the risk. And finally, she seems to have gotten Russia right, warning that a rocky period was ahead with President Vladimir Putin.
The book opens with an unfortunate gush of cliches, including the promise that it will take the reader “from the shifting sands of the Middle East to the turbulent waters of the Pacific to the uncharted terrain of cyberspace.” Madame Secretary, belay that modifier! And this reader was not encouraged by Clinton’s invocation of “what I call ‘smart power,’ ” the overused and vapid phrase meant to connote the kind of power between hard and soft.
But once Clinton gets rolling, she does what’s most valuable in this sort of memoir, which is to take readers inside her meetings — sketching portraits of the world leaders with whom she did business. The masterpiece of this genre are the two volumes of memoirs of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, whose sketches of such leaders as Syria’s Hafez al-Assad or China’s Zhou Enlai are unforgettable.
Clinton doesn’t reach that literary pinnacle. But she writes vivid descriptions of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who dispensed “rapid-fire, almost stream-of-consciousness soliloquies”); Holbrooke (whose style was a “mix of improvisation, flattery, and bluster”); and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (“carrying Europe on her shoulders”). She also includes an astonishing anecdote Putin told her about how his father came home to St. Petersburg from the front in World War II to find what he thought was the dead body of his wife in a stack of corpses (he recognized her shoes) and nursed her back to health and the eventual birth of young Vladimir. Putin’s truculent zero-sum approach to life is more comprehensible after reading Clinton’s account.
The best thing you can say about a secretary of state is that she gives the president good advice and keeps her mouth shut if she loses the argument, and Clinton appears (by her obviously selective account) to have passed these tests.
History will surely confirm that she was right to advocate an orderly transition of power in Egypt, as opposed to the mad pendulum swings we’ve seen there. She writes that she cautioned the president, who was eager to chuck Mubarak ASAP: “It all may work out fine in twenty-five years, but I think the period between now and then will be quite rocky for the Egyptian people, for the region, and for us.” Would that Obama had followed her advice and decided to take “yes” for an answer when Mubarak announced on Feb. 1, 2011, that he would quit.
Clinton offered a similarly prescient warning about Russia in January 2013, just before her departure: “In stark terms, I advised the President that difficult days lay ahead and that our relationship with Moscow would likely get worse before it got better. … Putin was under the mistaken impression that we needed Russia more than Russia needed us.”
Perhaps the most revelatory passages in the book involve the secret diplomacy that led to the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement with Iran. Although the deal was reached in Geneva months after Clinton had left, she laid the groundwork for the covert back channel through Oman to Iran. She describes the first feeler in January 2011, when the sultan of Oman confided to her that “I can help” arrange direct, secret talks. She then sent her closest aide, Jake Sullivan, to Oman in July 2012 to meet an Iranian advance party, then revisited Oman, then dispatched her deputy, Bill Burns, for the beginning of real bargaining. It’s an amazing tale of Kissinger-style diplomacy, and though Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry will get the credit if a final deal is reached, Clinton deserves a share.
Clinton is maddeningly coy about whether she will run for president in 2016. (“The answer is: I haven’t decided yet.”) The tedious opening and closing sections of Hard Choices make clear that she’s well stocked with campaign bromides. But the book should reinforce the case of those who believe Clinton is well prepared to be president.
David Ignatius reviewed this book for The Washington Post.