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The new stateswoman: Hillary Clinton’s steely idealism

Will Hillary run for president in 2016? Her memoir is more interested in the fine art of diplomacy.

Clinton voted for military action in Iraq but now admits she got it wrong. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty
Clinton voted for military action in Iraq but now admits she got it wrong. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

Hard Choices: a Memoir
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 635pp, £20

I last met Hillary just a few weeks ago in Arizona. That day she spoke alongside another former US presidential candidate, John McCain, and addressed a private gathering including almost a dozen of her former colleagues in the Senate. Yet even in such august company she stood out, not so much for her past achievements as for the palpable sense of expectation that surrounded her future choices.

That afternoon she excused herself by explaining that she had just received her editors’ final comments on Hard Choices and she needed to meet their exacting deadlines. Now the product of her labours – all 635 pages – is arriving on bookstands around the world. A promotional tour across the US is being planned with, as the New York Times described it, “all the subtlety of a military operation ramping up to full speed”.

Given the book is widely seen as a prelude to a possible 2016 run for the White House, what intrigues the reader is the extent to which it is intimately informed by the nuance of governance rather than the primary colours of politics. Indeed, in its best passages it is elevated by an acknowledgment of the gravity of the challenges leadership entails. It is more focused on insight than intrigue, and is a better read because of this.

For four years Hillary Clinton did what many believe is one of the most difficult jobs in government – a role that demands calm, considered and careful diplomacy in the context of unpredictable, unprecedented and often unknown challenges. Her tenure as secretary of state came towards the end of what President Obama later described as a “decade of war”. With typical diligence, Clinton set about putting her global superstardom in the service of rebuilding America’s standing abroad. From town-hall meetings to TV studios to presidential palaces, Hillary worked to engage both the public and the politicians in 112 countries.

The book, like its author, is characteristically disciplined and organised. Chapters are country- or issue-specific, and are divided into sections defined by themes – ranging from the personal “A Fresh Start”, to the policy-orientated “War and Peace”, and ending with the overtly political “The Future We Want”. As an account of US foreign policy during her tenure, it is thoughtful and reflective. She engages with some of the most challenging questions asked about the US’s place in the world, even if the answers she gives are not always wholly satisfactory.

She does not shy away from difficult topics such as the rise of China, the declining significance of hard power, the challenge of terrorism and the legacy of past conflicts, but there are strikingly fewer pages devoted to answering questions (which she herself raises) about the impact of the Edward Snowden leaks on the work of the National Security Agency or the perceived legitimacy of US drone strikes abroad.

Despite this, knowing what I do of the author, I felt Hard Choices gives a pretty authentic insight into the way she views the world. Good friends of mine who have worked closely with Hillary often characterise her – in her life and in her work – as an “idealistic realist”. Reading this book helped me understand better what they mean.

One much-publicised section that exemplifies this point is her description of the events surrounding the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. She reveals her optimism at the start of the uprising, which is then abruptly tempered by the reality on the ground. Her idealism informed her instinctive response but her realism stopped her from being swept up in much of the euphoria that greeted the protest movements in the Middle East. While many around her saw them as analogous to eastern Europe in 1988 and 1989, clearly she did not.

Nevertheless, the crisis in Libya in 2011 was a critical moment in her term and she openly concedes that the American public’s reaction to it was undoubtedly blurred by the previous ten years of conflict, when US forces had been “bogged down in long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”. Indeed, the calculation of whether to use force against the increasingly violent Gaddafi regime was dependent, in the views of her trusted advisers, on a number of conditions: a clearly stated objective, legal authority, international support and adequate on-the-ground military capabilities.

That debate taking place in Washington, which Hillary recounts in the book, was also under way in parallel here in the UK. On 21 March 2011, following a six-hour Commons debate, we in Labour gave our support to the UK government’s decision to use British forces to support a co-ordinated effort to stop Gaddafi killing more of his own people. I said in my speech to parliament that night that the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan had taught us that military action, even in support of humanitarian ends, brings with it unforeseen and uncertain consequences. Tragically, those unforeseen consequences unfolded in Benghazi just over a year later with the bloody storming of the US diplomatic compound when two diplomats and two CIA officers lost their lives. This event proved to be one of Hillary Clinton’s harshest challenges and she reflects on it deeply in the book, describing her frustration at being able to offer the American people “incomplete answers” only in the aftermath of the attack.

One of the hallmarks of that time was the partnership between the US and Europe. It is clear that Hillary saw her role as healing some of the damage done to America’s relations, and in the book she refers to her duty to “pick up the baton and do everything to renew old ties”. When she was first appoin­ted secretary of state, Europe was warm to that renewal. Barack Obama’s popularity across the continent meant that Europe’s door was wide open to better relations with the US under a new presidency. But Hillary notes that, if anything, expectations ran too high in 2008 and her time was all too often spent managing those expectations rather than fulfilling them.

In interviews to promote her book in recent days, she has continued to tread a careful diplomatic line when asked about US-Europe relations. She has also been quizzed specifically about Britain’s place in the EU and the possibility that David Cameron’s referendum policy could lead to the UK exiting Europe altogether. When asked by Jeremy Paxman on 12 June whether ties between America and Britain would suffer if we left the EU, Hillary smiled diplomatically and simply said “Europe needs Britain”. In a 21st century defined by interdependence, isolation in the Atlantic would be anything but splendid for Britain and a British exit from the EU would fundamentally damage our partnership with the US, just as it would isolate us from Europe.

Hillary was finely attuned to that need for a conscious commitment to multilateralism. As secretary of state she took a judgement that – in her own words – Asia would be the place where much of the “history of the 21st century would be written” and her first overseas visit was designed to show Asia that “America was back”. The pivot to Asia prompted broad US re-engagement in the multilateral organisations of the Pacific, such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). No previous US secretary of state had visited the headquarters of Asean in Jakarta but she purposefully did so on that first trip.

This “Asia awareness” is unsurprising. In the Senate she had called the rise of China “one of the most consequential strategic developments of our time” and was an early advocate of a “careful and disciplined” response to the relationship.

Yet even after finishing the book I am left wondering whether the pivot to Asia that Hillary oversaw, with a new emphasis on regional security alliances, will prove sufficient to acknowledge the global rebalancing of power and wealth now under way. Her successor, John Kerry, chose Europe and the Middle East – a much more conventional destination – for his first overseas visit, and the Middle East continues to absorb US time, energy and bandwidth.

As a secretary of state, milestone agreements are harder to come by than air miles. During her time in the job, Hillary Clinton travelled over 956,733 miles. Yet this book is less a travelogue and more of a dialogue between Hillary the diplomat and Hillary the candidate.

She gives a detailed account of her time in office, but also reflects on the decisions she took with the benefit of hindsight. This allows her to do what is still all too rare in politics: admit her mistakes. Hillary’s major error, as she sees it, was the 2002 vote on the authorisation of US force in Iraq. In this book she says plainly, “I got it wrong” – and she expresses real regret at not having come out sooner to say she thought it was a “mistake”.

This is the kind of insight you get into how her thinking has changed over the years. It sits alongside personal anecdotes that help paint a picture of what kind of woman Hillary is today, compared to the crude depictions that she so often suffered in her early years in public life.

She is a politician worried about the embarrassment of falling asleep in meetings who digs her nails into her palms to keep herself awake. She is a mother, so excited by the prospect of the wedding in 2010 of her daughter, Chelsea, that she nicknames herself “MOTB” (mother of the bride) in the months leading up to it. And she is also a wife, willing to confess that there were sometimes occasions when she may have wished she wasn’t.

And, today, she is indeed a Democrat facing a hard choice. She has the humility to accept that ultimately the choice is for the American people, but in reality their choices will depend on hers – and that is why they, and the rest of the world, will await with anticipation the next chapter of this story.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South

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