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

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour 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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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood