By Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster
600 pages, $35
By Mark Sommer
News BOOK REVIEWER
Hillary Clinton is nothing if not smart, hardworking and prepared.
As New York’s junior senator, she was a quick study on the issues confronting Western New York, possessing an impressive grasp of the issues evident to any journalist who interviewed her.
That same intelligence and drive are on display in “Hard Choices,” Clinton’s best-selling account of her four years as secretary of state, when she visited 112 countries and logged nearly 1 million miles.
The book has garnered enormous attention for what it might say about the person widely presumed to be Barack Obama’s successor, even if the election is more than two years away and Clinton is months from announcing a decision. But if she does decide to run – which would surprise nobody – and her pursuit is ultimately derailed, it won’t be because of this workmanlike book that avoids alienating allies or providing the “vast right-wing conspiracy” with fodder against her.
Those who don’t like Clinton are not likely to invest the time, energy and cost on a 600-page book highlighting her successes and failures. But for people who like their leaders smart and wonky, and with a command of the issues (see also Clinton, Bill), this book is an asset.
“Hard Choices” is a solid and often revealing, behind-the-scenes account of the life of a secretary of state. Despite the absence of a legacy-defining triumph on the order of a Middle East breakthrough, Clinton was in the center of major international crisis on several continents, and she takes the reader along with her.
Clinton delves into the nuances and complexities of international relations, while working to repair the country’s standing in the world after the previous administration. Challenges range from pushing a new “pivot” to Asia and rapprochement with Burma, to salvaging a cease-fire in Gaza, galvanizing support for the ouster of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and promoting safer conditions for African girls and women.
With the issues come the personalities behind them, from the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai to Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Sun Kyi and the late Nelson Mandela.
Clinton makes no effort to conceal her low regard for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but reveals a fascinating account of how she tapped into his concern for Siberia’s endangered tigers to forge a connection.
Clinton, by most accounts, came to be one of Obama’s most trusted advisers, so it’s no surprise that she leaves no more than a crack of daylight between them when it comes to a difference in opinion. Even when differences do surface – such as when she and Gen. David Petraeus favor arming Syrian rebels early on in that country’s horrific civil war – she defers to Obama’s judgment in not following their advice. It’s clear he is someone she grew to admire and feel affection for.
The book opens with Clinton’s first meeting with Obama after he has secured the Democratic Party nomination, and the process she went through before agreeing to serve as his secretary of state. From there, it’s a headfirst plunge into the job, as she walks readers chapter by chapter through the regional challenges that tested her abilities of statecraft and one-on-one relations. Included are Clinton’s many efforts to speak directly to everyday people around the world through town hall-style meetings.
A constant throughout the book are Clinton’s efforts to improve the treatment of girls and women, which more than anything have come to define her life’s work.
There are regrets, including not having done more to help Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators during the Green Revolution in 2009, and the Benghazi tragedy that saw Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans killed at the diplomatic compound. They were there because of her belief in “expeditionary diplomacy,” which calls for a State Department presence in dangerous locations.
In a chapter devoted to Benghazi, Clinton expresses her deep remorse, and describes the preventative actions developed to avoid similar dangers in the future. But she also defiantly refuses to participate in what she calls a partisan “political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.”
For those who think Clinton is too far to the left, Clinton burnishes her moderate-liberal credentials by denouncing Cuba’s Castro and Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, and expressing support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement which unions have lined up against.
There isn’t much about Clinton’s personal life in this book – 2003’s “Living History” provided that – but there are warm reflections about Bill, Chelsea and her late mother Dorothy Rodham. There’s also some humor sprinkled throughout. When Clinton asks a Burmese politician if he’s read books or spoken with experts on running their Lower House of Parliament, he answers, “Oh no. We’ve been watching “ ‘The West Wing.’ ” In Kenya, Clinton promises to convey a “very kind offer” to Chelsea after a city councilman renews a marriage proposal from years earlier to exchange 40 goats and 20 cows for her hand in matrimony.
Clinton no doubt left out plenty that would have rankled others, but politicians whose careers are still being written are wired to avoid such controversies. (Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates felt no such compunction in his recent tell-all book.)
And it’s clear the ink on Clinton’s political career has yet to dry. She all but says so. “The time for another hard choice,” she says in the book’s last sentence, “will come soon enough.”
Mark Sommer is a News reporter whose subjects have included the former New York Senator and U.S. Secretary of State.