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

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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