Commentary Type

The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power by Kim Ghattas

Op-ed in the Washington Post


By reputation, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a great secretary of state. She was indefatigable abroad, loyal to President Obama at home, eloquent and passionate in defining American values, and realistic in applying them to complex realities on the ground. Her approval ratings were sky-high. But the question remains: What did she actually accomplish in the State Department job?

Kim Ghattas, the BBC's State Department correspondent since 2008, has written an admiring book about Clinton that falls short of answering that question. The Secretary endorses the view that, despite Clinton's failure to achieve significant diplomatic breakthroughs, she dramatically elevated the United States' standing around the world and reasserted American leadership through her forceful personality, her devotion to women's and children's issues, and her espousal of "smart power."

The main weakness of this book is its acceptance of this narrative without presenting proof that it has made a real difference for American interests. Ghattas seems naively unaware that previous secretaries of state have also won praise for holding town meetings, doing interviews, and engaging in public diplomacy on their trips. The Secretary is much stronger in showing how Clinton gradually mastered a near-impossible job and overcame her initially uneasy relationship with Obama.

At first, Ghattas writes, Clinton was determined to avoid "all impressions that she had her own agenda or was pushing her own policies on the table." She stumbled in 2009 by boxing Obama into a hardline position against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in a misguided attempt to please the White House, the author says. By late 2010, nothing on foreign policy seemed to be going right for the administration anywhere, and Ghattas reports an off-the-record conversation with a high-level official. "We're holding things together with chewing gum and rubber bands," the official told her. "It's bad, really bad." Clinton later came to realize that the Middle East peace process was "a losing venture" not worth the trouble.

But according to the author, Clinton found her footing in 2011 as uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. Not that it was pretty. The secretary is described as reactive, uncertain and careful to reflect the White House's reluctance to intervene militarily in Libya and Syria or to push President Hosni Mubarak to leave Egypt, which she was still describing as stable just as it was falling apart.

But when it came time for international diplomacy to coordinate belated efforts to back the rebels in Libya and Syria, Clinton reverted to her role as best student and best listener in the class, churning through grueling rounds of diplomatic meetings with her checklist of possible compromises to be wrung from dozens of stakeholders in the region, and in Europe and Asia. Armed with her fact-finding, she was able to push for more aggressive policies, in some cases airstrikes and other military aid. The White House in turn placed great faith in her diplomacy, and she and Obama bonded at last, Ghattas maintains.

Ghattas's book is billed as "the first inside account" about Clinton's time in office. But unfortunately most of the "inside" story is inside Clinton's plane as it travels the globe. One of the few state secrets spilled is that State Department correspondents learn little from their hermetic bubble while bilateral and multilateral meetings take place behind closed doors. Some of this is interesting, but overall the book is too much a self-absorbed narrative of hurry-up-and-wait changes in schedule, baggage calls, bad meals, motorcade mishaps, impromptu briefings, town meetings, photo ops and press "avails" on the road, interspersed with gushing praise for Clinton's energy and amiability: "She had a knack for becoming friends with everyone."

Large aspects of foreign policy are frustratingly missing. There is almost nothing about the reset with Russia that worked for a time, only to unravel, and little about diplomacy over North Korea, despite lengthy descriptions of the secretary's uninteresting visit to the Demilitarized Zone. We get too much of Clinton's visit to the Shanghai World Expo, too much acceptance at face value of the "pivot" to increase influence in Asia and too little tough analysis of why Washington and Beijing remain at odds on so much.

One of the administration's biggest diplomatic achievements is barely discussed: the success in isolating Iran economically and diplomatically. We learn much about a minor episode over Iran with Turkey and Brazil, but little about the efforts to get Europe, China and other Asian countries to reduce imports of Iranian oil or about coordinating with Saudi Arabia to raise production to make up for the cuts in Iranian exports.

Nor is there anything about the widely reported and consequential feuding between the Clinton and Obama staffs, especially involving Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the role of the brilliant (and famously insufferable) special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who was personally close to Clinton. Despite pressure from the White House, Clinton refused to dismiss him, even though his relations with leaders in the region had grown tenuous. But that story is not told here.

Ghattas, who grew up in Beirut, made a perhaps understandable decision to include many digressions recalling her upbringing in war-torn Lebanon. Like her family and friends, she had thought the United States was omnipotent and, in fact, guilty of failing to stop the Lebanese civil war and the Syrian invasion of 1990. Perhaps she felt this material would strengthen the sense of a journey for both herself and the secretary of state, but many readers will find it distracting.

Secretaries of state are often remembered for signature moments. Condoleezza Rice wrested policy on North Korea and Iran away from the neoconservatives and even helped engineer the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Colin Powell supported the war in Iraq based on flawed evidence. Madeleine Albright pushed and prodded the military to wage "Madeleine's war" in the Balkans. Clinton had no such dramatic moments. But she comes across in this book as unflagging, appealing, and unflappable, bringing ebullient energy and a sense of humor to the most banal or grueling schedule, when everyone else is slack-jawed from boredom or exhaustion.

Like Ronald Reagan telling about the little boy who sees a pile of manure and knows there must be a pony somewhere, she seems to have been relentlessly focused on solutions and to have tried again and again after setbacks. It is the Clinton we are familiar with, the one who will probably be back on the national and maybe world stage if she decides to bring these undeniable strengths to another run for president.

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