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

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

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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