Book review: Making a case for the Presidency – Hillary Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

Before saying more about Hillary Clinton’s recently published memoir Hard Choices, I want to begin by admitting that it will come as a huge surprise for me if she decides not to contest the 2016 US Presidential Election. That will not just be the case because of the momentum around Hillary and the Democrats’ optimism that they will return to office in 2016, but also because of the entire tone of this book.

Hard Choices, which narrates the story of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as the US Secretary of State, quickly climbed the best seller list of The New York Times, and only fell to second place once a book revealing the rumored tensions between the Clintons and the Obamas hit the market. It seems that the only thing readers are more interested in than Hillary is Hillary herself.

All autobiographies, including this one, are meant to portray authors as heroes and are thus written with the intention of telling the story of the author’s life with as much nobility as is plausible. Naturally then, after reading this book you may catch yourself wondering why all the problems in the world hadn’t gone away by 2013 when she ended her tenure as Secretary of State.

But what makes this book somewhat different is that it is less about Hillary herself but more about being the chief diplomat of a global superpower that is insecure about its influence in the world and fears that it is on the decline. Hard Choices is worth reading because of the insights it provides into the strength of American democracy and two of the greatest moments in America’s recent history – the humiliation that America felt on the world stage after the 2008 financial crisis and the taking out of America’s Enemy Number One Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Hillary describes in detail, and with some thinly-veiled amusement, how she was poached for the position of Secretary of State by the Obama Administration – the same campaign staff that had left no stone unturned in the previous two years to highlight her unsuitability for public office. After conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama, she was fairly adamant to return to her job as Senator of the New York State. What changed her mind, however, was a “sense of duty and service” inculcated in her by her parents and “a simple idea: When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes.” Yes, reading this book is a little like watching “The West Wing”, a romanticized American television series about the White House.

The book again adopts a diplomatic, humdrum tone, with Hillary detailing how the White House was supportive of almost every decision she made on who she wanted on her State Department team. That’s a little hard to accept on face value for someone familiar with the age-old wariness that characterizes the relationship between the State Department and the White House, both of which share much-guarded territory as representatives of the US President on the global stage.

Eventually, though, Hillary bounces back to her rather undiplomatic self in part, talking about the difficult things about the job more candidly. “I had logged in more miles and sat through more awkwardly translated diplomatic speeches than I imagined possible,” she writes at one point, in a line that perfectly captures the essence of her time as Secretary of State. In the short span of four years, she travelled to 112 countries, including China and Japan whose emergence as global business centers was adding to the anxiety that the US was feeling with regards to its own financial health. In many of these meetings, the leaders of the newly-confident economic powers never missed an opportunity to lecture her on how the United States was doing it all wrong. She makes it obvious that those were not her most comfortable or cherished moments from those meetings, even though a number of them ended in successful outcomes.

Her sharpest criticism, however, is reserved for the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This section, I believe, is the actual test of the book’s objective: be a feel-good story for America and Americans or have a serious discussion on American diplomatic history. No points for guessing which way the book tilts (it’s the former). For example, while she clearly mentions the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency’s links with the Afghan Taliban from the 1980s struggle against the Soviets, she fails to mention the American role in the conflict that is a well-documented part of history. Although I had little expectations, this omission was still a slight disappointment for me since, for the most part of the book, she doesn’t shy away from pointing out bad decisions made by American diplomats that have led to some of the deadlocks she tried to break.

Interestingly, though, she only mentions those mistakes in the context of events that she considers her diplomatic victories, such as Myanmar and China, or when there is an opportunity to blame others for their behavior. For instance, she accepts that complications were created by America’s quick and irresponsible exit from Afghanistan in 1989, but only to chastise Pakistan on what she calls irresponsible behavior towards its counterterrorism policies. She also takes no clear position on drones, insisting that the Obama Administration does everything it can to prevent civilian casualties and hides behind the fact that the program is classified information.

More diplomatically, the book is planned such that while the chapter on Pakistan begins with the Bin Laden raid, it carefully moves on to say nicer things about the two countries’ strained relationship.

Her description of the OBL raid is another part of the book that convinces me of Hillary’s ambitions to announce her intention to run for president. She makes it clear that during deliberations about whether America risked irreparably damaging Pakistani national honor by sending in US Navy SEALs, her priority for American honor. “What about our national honor? What about our losses? What about going after a man who killed three thousand innocent people?” she asks an official who brings up the question about Pakistan. It is clear that in Hillary Clinton’s mind, Pakistan was less a partner and more a threat in America’s quest for fighting militancy and militants. And that view of Pakistan is shared by her compatriots, many of whom see Democrats as soft on Pakistan and other countries that harm US interests. By emphasizing Pakistan’s role towards securing America while also clearly mentioning her frustration from “too much double-talk from certain quarters in Pakistan or the still-searing memories of the smoking pile in Lower Manhattan” as the reasons for her support to the Bin Laden operation, Hillary appears to have the intention to ensure that the American public knows her strong position on the matter as well as understands the need to continue US engagement with Pakistan.

She then moves on to describing her first trip to Pakistan in 2009, where she was famously likened to an angry mother-in-law by the Pakistani media, and was a “punching bag” particularly over the Kerry-Lugar Bill. She bravely tackles the failure of America’s approach to development aid for Pakistan, admitting that the “toxic politics” of US-Pakistan ties have become a huge hindrance in addressing Pakistani peoples’ anti-American sentiments.

While Hard Choices is not the most engrossing read, and tends to be almost tedious at some points, it is worth a read to understand the persona of Hillary Clinton – the first woman to have generated the sort of respect that even conservative America is waiting with bated breath for her to announce her intention for 2016. In May, I attended a Ready for Hillary event in Chicago. For a Thursday evening, technically still a weeknight, it was packed. Speaker after speaker, including the mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel who is close to both Hillary and Bill Clinton, stressed that it was time for a woman in the White House. Clearly, if Chicago is any indication, America is ready to elect Hillary Clinton as its next president. Hard Choices will give you the clearest glimpse into why. Hillary Clinton is a seasoned policy wonk, one who knows the world and who the world knows. As America begins its economic and diplomatic rise, an event it has been craving for since the financial crisis of 2008, Hillary Clinton may just be its best bet.

A shorter version of this review was printed in Dawn’s Books and Authors magazine here: http://www.dawn.com/news/1125712/cover-story-hard-choices-by-hillary-rodham-clinton

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