Hillary Clinton's bad book
Her stodgy memoir is best understood as a briefing book for surrogates and “influencers”
HILLARY CLINTON is a big fan of briefing books.
As Barack Obama's envoy to the world she devoured great, thick binders on every subject imaginable,
she writes in “Hard Choices”, a new memoir published on June 10th.
As she worked tirelessly to prepare for summits and official trips to 112 countries, she admired the expertise of her diplomats.
Only one thing bothered her.
A few months into the job she asked the State Department to be more creative with graphics,
after envying the flashier briefings carried by Pentagon brass. Soon, she beams: “there were plenty of coloured maps and charts to go around.”
Mrs Clinton's 600-page doorstopper is full of this stuff: micro-revelations which are earnest, dull and self-serving, all at the same time.
“Hard Choices” is a frustrating read. The memoir has the cautious, polished, poll-tested feel of a campaign speech.
A million copies have been printed. A multi-city speaking tour has begun.
A first-day book-signing in Manhattan drew lines around the block and hundreds of reporters.
A large campaign-style bus idled outside.
It was sent by “Ready for Hillary”, a ginger group that wants the former secretary of state,
first lady, senator and presidential contender to run again for the White House in 2016.
A press strategy was even crafted to handle a single chapter of the book,
addressing the low point of Mrs Clinton's time as secretary: the 2012 killings of four Americans by militants in the Libyan city of Benghazi,
including America's ambassador. The chapter was leaked early and Democratic officials and “surrogates”
(campaign jargon for folk who can speak for a candidate) briefed on Benghazi talking-points by a former Obama spokesman,
Tommy Vietor, and Mrs Clinton's press guru Philippe Reines.
Still Mrs Clinton says she has not yet decided whether to run.
She did not write the book for followers of Washington's political soap opera, she says severely.
Rather, it is for Americans keen to learn more about diplomacy in the Obama era,
and the exercise of American power in the 21st century, she insists.
Such pieties are not wholly convincing. For starters, much of the book smells of raw politics, rather than diplomatic history.
Mrs Clinton stepped down as chief diplomat in 2013 with high public approval ratings
(in part because her job lofted her above the partisan mire for four years), but a list of vulnerabilities too.
“Hard Choices” doggedly works its way down that list.
In the Benghazi chapter Mrs Clinton accuses conservative critics of mounting a “political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans”.
She has a point. But in turn she constructs a political straw man,
accusing critics of suggesting that diplomats stage an un-American “retreat” from the world.
She leaves unanswered the more relevant question of whether the West's intervention in Libya, which she championed, left the country better off.
After Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia, many Republicans accused Barack Obama and Mrs Clinton of having emboldened Russia with their 2009 bid to “reset” relations.
Mrs Clinton retorts that Russia rolled into Georgia when George W. Bush was still in office, calls the “reset” a worthy attempt to work on areas of agreement while setting tough issues to one side, and blames its failure on Vladimir Putin,
one of the world's “hard men”.
Strikingly, other chapters involve veiled swipes at Mr Obama and his team.
Mrs Clinton revisits painful disputes from the 2008 Democratic primary,
when she felt subjected to sexist attack by Obama allies.
She confirms a much-reported dispute from 2012, when she
(in alliance with the then CIA chief, David Petraeus, and the then defence secretary, Leon Panetta)
wanted to train and arm non-extremist Syrian rebels.
Mr Obama decided the risks outweighed possible gains—a scepticism shared by White House aides.
In the book she links this to a remarkably reductive account of Mr Obama's 2008 victory,
writing: “After all, the President had been elected in large part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq and his promise to bring the troops home.”
Hawkishly, Mrs Clinton questions Mr Obama's decision to announce a fixed exit date for American troops in Afghanistan.
She suggests that callow young Obama aides were wrong to urge a swift end to Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt.
Finally, she addresses those who say she accomplished little.
This is a popular attack: a recent conservative video shows young Hillary fans struggling to name her greatest accomplishment.
She retorts with a long list of mid-sized successes, from democracy promotion in Burma to a 2012 ceasefire in Gaza,
or projects to advance women's rights.
If some chapters are too nakedly political for a work of foreign-policy analysis, then others are too worthy for many general readers.
At times it feels as if none of those 112 countries is going to be missed out.
Mrs Clinton offers accounts of African trade flows, a coup in Honduras, climate talks in Denmark,
the fine work that Barbados has done with solar water heaters and her opinion of Canada
(“our northern neighbour is an indispensable partner”). Those hoping for gossip will be disappointed.
Few insiderish nuggets leaven the mix—though Mrs Clinton does explain why the secret service dislikes VIPs visiting Buddhist temples
(they feel unready for emergencies without their shoes).
To solve the mystery of what “Hard Choices” is for, think back to those Democratic surrogates being schooled on Benghazi talking-points.
This is a briefing book for surrogates, and—beyond them—for the legions of “influencers” so prized by modern political campaigns:
the amateur opinion-formers whose friends, colleagues and relatives listen to their political views, or follow them online.
Understood as a briefing book, the memoir's oddities make more sense.
It exists to offer talking points to each possible element of a future Clinton coalition—
from folk worried about climate change to women who voted for Mitt Romney, who could imagine voting for Hillary,
but whose husbands are obsessed with Benghazi. It never needed to be a good read.