Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Book Review #5 of 2015)
I have read Hillary Rodham Clinton's (HRC) previous memoir as well as a couple biographies of her. This is the third book I have read by a Secretary of State and the third memoir by an Obama cabinet member (Gates' and Geithner's memoirs the others). Secretaries of State write the most interesting memoirs because they get to see the most cultures and both the initial and after effects of American foreign policy. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (HRC) book is fairly sterile, the reader has to occasionally read between the lines to get a sense of whether she sparred with Obama or not. There are occassional flashbacks to her days traveling with the Clinton White House there are few, if any, comparisons between administrations or styles.
Most disappointing for me was that there was very little about how HRC managed her office, particularly when it came time to making tough decisions. Colin Powell and Robert Gates included their own management styles and philosophies in their books. I work in a cabinet agency in state government so I'm fully aware that the cabinet secretary rarely gets involved in micromanaging day-to-day operations but he or she does set the tone for how the cabinet gets things done and it's not clear how deliberate HRC was in her tone.
Obama comes across mostly as "upset" and "frustrated." He is often impatient, not able to get the information he wants. Staffers, when mentioned, come across as young, naive, and reactionary as Gates described them.
Since we know from Gates' memoir and various articles that VP Biden is heavily involved in day-to-day affairs, including foreign policy, it's a bit of a surprise that he does not appear much at all in the book. HRC, running for President, probably does not want to air grievances but that certainly would have helped differentiate her from others in the administration that she was perhaps frustrated with.
This memoir is chronological and geographical, stopping at each place and giving HRC's personal history with the country or region and the events that unfolded while she was Secretary. One of the most intriguing stories involved her decision to assist and grant asylum to Chen Guangcheng who was under Chinese house arrest. Clinton makes some forthright statement about her beliefs on American values of freedom and human rights and the importance of not backing down once the decision was made. She maintains that the peaceful settlement of the Chen crisis made possible only through her great emphasis on prior negotiations and respectful communication with China.
Dealing with Burma and the issues arising around Aung San Suu Kyi was another interesting story. Sen. Mitch McConnell's support of Suu Kyi and his assistance were previously unknown to me, and perhaps illuminate while she did not criticize the Senator by name when she was campaigning in Kentucky for his opponent in 2014. Clinton and McConnell were both furious at the crazed American who swam to Suu Kyi's residence but Clinton also recognized her duty to help the American as his Secretary of State.
While discussing events leading up to the "Afghan Surge," Clinton tells some interesting revisionist history in regards to Iraq. HRC claims she clamored on behalf of UN weapons inspectors for "just a few more weeks" against the wishes of the Bush Administration. She rejects the notion that Congress gave Bush authority to start the war and also regregs "giving Bush the benefit of the doubt" in regards to WMD. The reality is we know that she did not read the CIA's declassified intelligence report (almost no one in Congress did) and she didn't do the investigation she claims to have done. These were all issues in the 2008 presidential campaign, how quickly we forget.
HRC elaborates on the difficult relationship with Hamid Karzai and trying to foster democratic transition in Afghanistan. She takes credit for introducing the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke to Gen. Petraeus and relates that they hit it right off and talked policy for nights on end. Clinton praises her friend Holbrooke profusely (he was an advisor to her on the campaign trail). Holbrooke served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and died shortly after initiating negotiations with the Taliban; HRC and others' mourning make up one of the more emotional parts of the book. One can contrast HRC's recollection of events with Holbrooke with that of Gates who wrote of the "clumsy and failed putsch" orchestrated in part by Holbrooke. HRC also doesn't mention that Holbrooke was fairly critical of Obama's policies, stating he could never tell if Obama's intentions were for negotiated transition or hasty withdrawal.
Her historic overview of modern Turkey is, in my view, largely correct. She gives many anecdotes of dealing with both Erdoğan (then Prime Minister, now President and still in charge) and Davutoğlu (then Foreign Secretary, now Prime Minister). HRC writes that Davutoğlu was openly talking of "war" between Turkey and Israel after Israeli soldiers boarded a vessel running the Gaza blockade and killed several Turks. (Obama later helped heal that rift by having Netanyahu call Erdoğan, but comments after the Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015 suggest those wounds are wide open again.) HRC also tried to smooth relations with Turkey during the Libyan intervention. Turkey was quite frustrated with France and Sarkozy over Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey ever gaining EU accession. The balancing act with Turkey over Syria comes up in the book as well.
Contra Gates' memoir (and George Kennan's beliefs), HRC praises NATO expansion outright with no reservations. HRC mentions that accords after NATO involvement in Kosovo were aimed at keeping Russia in check and were forward-looking to something like the 2014 annexation of Crimea. She argues Crimea would be a bigger mess without united NATO to threaten further aggression.
This book lacks the deep attempts at insight into the Russian foreign policy psyche that Gates', Condi Rice's, and George W. Bush's memoirs attempted. She describes the similar ups and downs with Russia as those memoirs outline but in perhaps a less-sharp tone. She retells a story that Vladimir Putin told her about his family history. He claimed that his dad found his mom half-alive in St. Petersburg while he was on leave from the army and he nursed her back to health. Ambassador McFaul also had never heard the story, apparently no Russia hands were aware of it. I'm intrigued she published in the book and offers it as potential insight into Putin's views on the importance of Russian independence and suspicion of the West.
Supposedly, Clinton opposed intervention in Libya until she saw favorable developments in Egypt and the Arab League. Sarkozy was supposedly "deeply moved by the suffering under the dictator" recorded by a Frenchman traveling in Libya. The cost and benefits of this operation are not outlined cleanly. (Gates opposed both the operation and the Administration's later micromanagement). HRC relays the near-disaster of almost losing a pilot downed in Libyan airspace and remarks that American sentiment would have turned sharply had he not been rescued safely.
She talks pretty candidly about the hard choice of propping up dictators during the Cold War, forming strategic partnerships with them, then having a dilemma when the people want democracy. She does not reach any conclusions here, there is a that's-just-how-it-is mentality. She tells of how she pushed privately for individual human rights cases in Saudi Arabia, acknowledging that 9/11 hijackers came from there and oil money is used to foment extremist violence around the world... "but they partner with us in security and against Iran," so apparently it's supposed to even out.
There is a long recount of Benghazi, a defense of her role, and an attempt to correct the record from misinformation constantly circulated by opponents who knew better. HRC managed an agency with 70,000 employees, and surprisingly applications increased after Benghazi. The most emotional moment in the book comes with the funeral of the Benghazi staff and conversations with their relatives. I accept her explanations and sincerity here.
In regards to Syria, HRC and Petraeus favored arming a "small group" of "moderates" more as a signaling device than anything, so that Assad's allies would continue to defect and the regime would collapse internally. Obama demurred, only favoring it after revelations of more chemical attacks. She hedges that it was the "least bad of very bad options." There is no thought, however, to what the aftermath would have been if the Assad regime had fallen. Clinton makes pains to stress the lessons learned from Iraq on nation-building, the concerns the Administration had about what would come after Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya, and the transition of power in Afghanistan. But no mention of "after Assad..." Today's New York Times is writing that the Obama administration has reversed course, continuing to arm rebels but only to fight ISIS groups and working with the Assad regime while giving reassurances. One gathers that Obama's foreign policy is fairly inconsistent. As HRC said in an interview after the release of this book "'Don't do stupid things' is not a policy."
She includes a section on dealings with Iran and their "clenched fist." She hopes for reform but an understanding that the Supreme Leader is in charge. She regrets the Administration not speaking out more during the Iranian uprisings after Ahmadinejad was re-elected. There are very few regrets listed in the book, but that is one. Frustrations in dealing with Israel are universal, but it's clear from the book that there was a real serious rift between Obama and Netanyahu.
On climate change HRC gives an inside look at how Obama & she barged into the meeting with Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, and South African heads. This meeting is a reminder that foreign policy is perhaps the one area of influence Presidents really consistently have, and is perhaps where Obama comes across the best in the book.
She claims to have increased the State Department's emphasis on economics in the aftermath of the financial crisis. She states outright that she wanted to work with Economics FSOs to fight against protectionist and mercantilist policies. I'm not sure her political rhetoric favoring unions and protectionism matches this at all. Which policy is really preferred by HRC? She equipped USAID to do more entrepreneurial development, something that she had some familiarity with through the Clinton Global Initiative. In some cases it sounds like she's taking credit for pre-Obama initiatives like the Millenium Challenge Accounts, which were set up under the Bush Administration. "That's why we created the MCAs..." "we" here apparently means America and not her administration.
She discusses the need to respond to government & corporate espionage and claims (like Colin Powell claimed on his watch) that she greatly boosted State Department investments in technology. She encouraged Russian Ambassador Michael McFaul to be front-and-center on social media, even calling him on open channels to praise him. This is interesting because he was shunned by Kremlin for being too vocal, saying things everyone knew to be true but did not say publicly, and his term in Moscow did not end positively.
The greatest red flag for me comes in the chapters on human rights. HRC finishes the book with a look at her efforts toward women and LGBT rights around the world. She quotes Eleanor Roosevelt on human rights. This section comes immediately after discussing her Methodist faith, repeating the oft-told story of how her youth pastor made a huge difference in her life and career choices by emphasizing faith in action. But her statements on the importance of human rights lack any faith grounding whatsoever. According to HRC, humans have rights simply because they are of the human species, not because they are "endowed by their Creator," or made in the image of God as is essential to American law. While HRC trumpets defending rights as an American virtue, the Founders' view of human rights came from Western thought from Aristotle and Augustine onward-- that there is a divine spark within us. To hard-core liberals or atheists reading this, I remind you that even President Obama has claimed a belief in God as a reason for respecting the rights of others to exist. HRC does not mention as such in her book, which is what really separates it from the work Condoleeza Rice's book in addressing the same subjects.
An almost equally troubling red flag came in her comments about considering another run for public office that "there is no higher calling than to serve one's country." I'm sorry, but that's just an insult to the millions who pay the taxes to pay the salaries of those "serving." You can make the statement broad enough in meaning that in doing any work well, teaching, entrepreneurship, tax accounting, etc. you are "serving one's country," but the comment comes across that politics (or perhaps the military) is the highest calling and that's just false.
In all, I enjoyed the work. There are a few insights into how HRC would do foreign policy and where she stands on dealing with China, Russia, Israel, and more. I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It would have been better with more insights into how she runs her office, her own leadership and management philosophies and such, given that she's running for President. I recommend the book as a work of American and international history.