HARD CHOICES by Hillary Rodham Clinton

(Hillary Clinton testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Benghazi)

When Hillary Clinton launched her recent book tour promoting her memoir of her State Department tenure the political pundits concluded that this was the launch of her 2016 presidential campaign.  While that may be accurate the book, HARD CHOICES should be evaluated as to whether it provides greater understanding of American foreign policy during the first Obama administration.  The answer lies somewhere in the middle.  The book has many components.  It is Clinton’s attempt to justify the course of action taken during her years as Secretary of State, provide explanations to counter the myriad Republican criticisms that seem to emerge no matter what the issue or situation at that time, project a softer image for the American public, offer advice as to what tools American diplomacy should employ during the “digital age,” and discuss non-traditional topics that normally do not take up a great deal of space in political memoirs, i.e.; environmental and economic policy.  For Clinton the conduct of foreign policy seeks a balance of “smart” and the hard power of projecting military might.  For the former Secretary “smart power” needs to be “integrated with the traditional tools of foreign policy—diplomacy, developmental assistance, and military force—while tapping the energy and ideas of the private sector and empowering citizens, especially the activists, organizers, and problem solvers we call civil society, to meet their own challenges and shape their own futures.”  (pp. x-xi)  In doing so America’s strengths can be employed to develop more partners and fewer adversaries by sharing responsibility and becoming involved in fewer conflicts.  This includes reaching out to the people of whatever country policy is being developed, promoting jobs and less poverty, and expanding the middle class to lift people up with less damage to the environment.

At a time when President Obama’s foreign policy decision making is under attack, especially over events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine, Clinton’s memoir is a useful tool to see how decisions were reached, particularly the background considerations.  The “pivot” toward Asia was pronounced as soon as Clinton entered the State Department and currently it is seen by opponents as a failure because of the unrest in the Middle East.  The other major pronouncement was a “reset” with Russia that has fallen under scrutiny as Vladimir Putin has used events in the Ukraine to seize the Crimea and threaten the eastern part of the former Soviet republic.  Clinton spends a great deal of time providing the rational for these policy changes and makes the case that the results have not been perfect but were worth the effort.  In the case of the “pivot” toward Asia, Clinton called for broadening our relationship with China.  To accomplish this a sophisticated strategy was needed to encourage China to be “a responsible member of the international community, while [we] stood firm in defense of our values and interests.” (42)  At the same time the United States needed to strengthen our treaty alliances in the region to provide a counterbalance to China’s growing power.  A third goal was to “elevate and harmonize the alphabet soup of regional multilateral organizations” and use these venues “for all nations of the region to work together on shared challenges, resolve disagreements, establish rules and standards of behavior, reward responsible countries with legitimacy and respect, and help hold accountable those who violated the rules.” (44)  Clinton admits that the jury is still out as to whether this emphasis on Asia was a success, but with the growing influence the region has on the world economy, demand for energy, and the many disagreements on trade, human rights, boundaries, and the environment, the effort was well worth it and in the long run should yield positive results.  In the case of the reset with Russia the jury remains out.  When Putin left office and was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev as Russian Prime Minister in 2009 the world witnessed greater cooperation between Moscow and Washington.  The “reset” produced a strategic arms agreement, use of Russian soil to supply American forces in Afghanistan, Russian support for a no-fly zone in Libya, bringing Russia into the World Trade Organization, the expansion of counterterrorism cooperation, and Russian support for economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea.  This was in contrast to the intransigence of US-Russian relations under Putin that returned when the former KGB officer returned to his role as Prime Minster after Medvedev served his term.  Putin believes in restoring Russia to its preeminent role in world politics that it experienced before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  He is a Slavic nationalist who does not believe in the concept of “smart power,” for him it is a reflection of weakness.  Further, he blames the United States for the economic crisis begun in 2008 and believes the United States hood winked Moscow in gaining support for a UN resolution in dealing with Libya and then turned into strong military action that resulted in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.  Many of President Obama’s critics blame him for events in the Ukraine and the Russian seizure of the Crimea, but based on Putin’s belief system and ambitions there was little that could have been done to deter him.  The question remains what should the United States do in response and Clinton is clear that economic sanctions can work as they did with Iran, but for those who want immediate gratification the time it takes to have an impact will not be satisfied.



(Vladimir Putin contemplates the next step for the Ukraine)

Clinton organizes her memoir around specific issues and problems rather than a chronological approach to her term as Secretary of State.  She does an effective job of providing the background history of the subjects she chooses to address and to her credit she continues to explain her viewpoint pertaining to those issues during the period after she resigned. The most interesting chapters deal with events in Afghanistan, the ongoing crisis in Syria, the difficulties dealing with Pakistan, the inability to achieve any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the effects of the Arab spring, relations with Iran, and of course Benghazi. It was fascinating to read about the internal discussions in the Obama administration in deciding whether to launch a “surge” in Afghanistan the way President Bush had done in Iraq.  Vice President Biden was against the “surge,” and Richard Holbrooke who was in charge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio in the State Department was very skeptical that a surge could prove effective.  Clinton supported President Obama’s decision to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan believing that if nothing was done the Taliban would continue to seize more of the country, making it harder for the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations.

The Obama administration has been very careful in dealing with Syrian rebels who oppose the Assad regime and has drawn a great deal of criticism.  The fear has always been if weapons were supplied how we could guarantee that they would reach the moderate elements in the fractious grouping of rebels who were fighting Damascus and eventually would be used against the United States as occurred in Afghanistan.  I disagree with the pronouncement of “red lines” that once crossed would produce American military action, if none was intended. However, the United States has provided a tremendous amount of non-military aide, and it is obvious from polling that the American people do not want to intervene with “boots on the ground.”

Pakistan also presents a difficult problem and an obstacle to peace.  Clinton supports the conclusions of Carlotta Gall in her recent book, THE WRONG ENEMY that the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) which has had a long running relationship with the Taliban is one of the major obstacles for peace.  They have provided safe haven for insurgents inside Pakistan and worked behind the scenes to prevent President Karzai from making a separate peace with the Taliban.  Clinton is right on the mark when she argues that the Pakistanis need to become invested in the future of Afghanistan and that they have more to gain from peace than a continuation of the current military conflict.  Pakistan has its own national security fears in dealing with India and events and its attitude toward Afghanistan must be seen from that perspective.  As in all cases Clinton provides comments about the individuals she is dealing with especially Afghani President Hamid Karzai who she describes as a proud man who believed that the Taliban was not his primary opponent, it was Pakistan and he was reluctant to use his own forces against the Taliban.  He believed the United States and coalition forces should conduct the “lion’s share of the fighting against Pakistan, while he negotiated with his fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban. (145)

(Clinton and Netanyahu in Israel)

In dealing with the Middle East Clinton provides a detailed history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and her relationships with the main players, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barack in Israel and Mahmoud Abbas the leader of the Palestinian Authority.  Since the memoir appears to be the launching of a presidential campaign the reader will witness the obligatory support for Israel that is a necessity for any Democratic candidate.  Clinton chooses her words very carefully in supporting a two-state solution for the conflict and her opposition to Hamas and the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon in dealing with Israeli security needs.  I commend Clinton’s attempt to mediate a solution to the conflict but from the outset it was apparent that the odds of success were remote.  With Netanyahu’s support for the continued construction of settlements on the West Bank, being hamstrung by the religious right of his own governing coalition, success was doubtful.  Clinton’s advice to Netanyahu concerning the burgeoning Palestinian birth rate as being the greatest threat to Israeli security in the future was also very timely.

As soon as excerpts of the book were released in advance of publication the pundit world jumped on the Benghazi episode.  There is really nothing new presented here that has not come out in the numerous congressional hearings dealing with the crisis.  Clinton correctly points out that “the total elimination of risk is a non-starter for U.S. diplomacy, given the need for the U.S. government to be present in places where stability and security are often most profoundly lacking and host government support is sometimes minimal to non-existent.” (385)  The criticism dealing whether the attack was incited by a disrespectful video dealing with Mohammad should not be the center piece of what might have gone wrong.  State Department and Congressional investigations have shown that the mob was provoked by the video and terrorists took advantage of the situation to launch its attack.  Another criticism of Clinton centers around her leaving her office the night of the crisis and going home, a home that was outfitted with the same intelligence and communication equipment as her State Department office.  Clinton took responsibility for events before a Senate committee; perhaps others who have created many of the issues in the region today might do the same.

Clinton is at her best when she is describing the reality of the diplomatic process.  The machinations behind the scene are ever present and some of her details are fascinating.  A good example was the attempt to create a coalition of NATO and Arab League members to thwart Qaddafi’s troops as they marched on Benghazi.  Maintaining relations with the United Arab Emirates after Bahrain was criticized for using Saudi troops to help crush domestic descent, Franco-Turkish relations were sour because French President Sarkozy had opposed Turkey’s membership in NATO, Italian-French competition to lead the coalition against Libya, gaining Russian and Chinese support for a UN resolution, and President Obama’s goal of having the US take a more limited role in any action all had to be balanced.  Opponents called this “leading from behind,” Clinton answers her critics by stating, “That’s a silly phrase.  It took a great deal of leading from the front, side, and every other direction, to authorize and accomplish the mission and to prevent what might have been the loss of tens of thousands of lives.” (375)

Clinton concentrates a great deal on her experiences in Africa and Latin America.  She details crises in Kenya and Somalia in Africa, and crises in Honduras and El Salvador in Latin America.  Her discussion of the future role of Brazil is important as is her poignant chapter dealing with the earthquake in Haiti that took place on January 12, 2010.  Her coverage of poverty sets her memoir apart from others.  She devotes a significant part of her book to the role of American foreign aid as a vehicle to assist those countries in need.  She debunks the view that foreign aid is a significant part of the federal budget, some believing it is as high as 25%, when in reality it is less than 1%.  Clinton’s emphasis on assisting countries through economic aid, education, human rights, and medical assistance is part of her goal of using what she terms as “soft power” to improve the lives of those in need and uplifting America’s image in the world.

Apart from the traditional discussion of policy and planning, Clinton lets the reader see her softer side.  Whether it is to improve her image as a presidential candidate or not her she is able to integrate personal moments into her narrative.  Her emotions related to her daughter Chelsea’s marriage and her moniker “M.O.T.B,” short for mother of the bride while negotiating with the Chinese is revealing.  Her feelings dealing with Chelsea’s pregnancy and her new role as a grandmother are very heartening.  She talks about her own honeymoon a number of times and refers to her husband as her best friend. Her emphasis on the role of woman in diplomacy is important as she argues that women pursue a different approach than men and are less likely to employ the military in solving crises.  Clinton has an excellent chapter on the role of the environment and its relation to current economic issues and the health of future generations is well put.  Pundits search for differences with President Obama, but in large part they agreed on policy and when disagreements took place her views were aired and any issues going back to the 2008 presidential campaign were easily overcome.  If she strongly disagreed with policy she had no difficulty in saying so, i.e.; when asked to attack Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign she refused arguing she would not criticize a woman for trying to attract women voters.  Clinton, unlike other politicians admitted her vote to support the war in Iraq was wrong and she realizes how that war has hurt the United States, particularly with events in Iraq as of this writing.

(Chelsea Clinton’s wedding Photo!)

If one reads HARD CHOICES you should come to the conclusion that Clinton has wide-ranging experience on national security and foreign policy issues, however, if one followed the news carefully during her time at the State Department there is very little that is new in the book.  If you are interested in a female perspective on world events during her tenure as Secretary of State, the book will come across as fascinating and informative and will provide you with the background for events, explain why certain policies were pursued, and suggest what might occur in the future.

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