During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton ran a blunt television ad asking whether Barack Obama could handle a foreign policy crisis. In it, a phone rang and a variety of children were shown in their beds. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?” asked the narrator. After the parade of adorables, the ad showed Clinton on the phone. It was a contrivance since she’d never answered a red phone either. But now she has, and over more than 600 pages of Hard Choices, her memoir of her time as secretary of state, Clinton details what it’s like to steer U.S. diplomacy in a dangerous and changing world.
It turns out the secretary of state’s emergency phone is actually yellow and that the world of campaign ads is more exciting than the incremental painful work of diplomacy. (Unless you find excitement in the strengthening of multilateral responses to Chinese encroachment on international boundaries in the South China Sea.) This book, which is not scheduled to launch until June 10, but which clever elves from CBS This Morning found in a bookstore, is a risk-free telling of Clinton’s world travels. Parents who read it will startle no sleeping children reacting to its admissions, and nothing in it would seem to imperil Clinton’s future presidential chances—though Vladimir Putin, whom she calls “thin skinned,” might be grumpy if they ever have a bilateral meeting together. What comes across, though, is that whatever Clinton leaves out—and there’s plenty in her omissions for critics—she put in thousands of hours grinding her way across the globe doing the painstaking work of diplomacy.
This is not a book from someone who has nothing to lose. When former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote his recent book, Duty, it was full of tough assessments and candor. Clinton’s book has no gossip, which is no surprise, but it also only hints at the inside feel of the way national security policy is made. Gates’ book had lots of spice, which is always part of even a well-functioning foreign policy team. Clinton’s account is the low-salt, low-fat, low-calorie offering with vanilla pudding as the dessert. She goes on at great length, but not great depth.
Even Condoleezza Rice, one of the most loyal Bush aides on the planet, was more candid in her memoir about the inside workings of power relationships than Clinton. Describing her effort as national security adviser to get the egos in Bush’s foreign policy team to focus on postwar planning in Iraq, she said that President Bush started a meeting by announcing, “This is something Condi has wanted to talk about.” She wrote, “I could immediately see that the generals no longer thought it to be a serious question.” After the meeting, her deputy Stephen Hadley said that he “would have resigned after that comment by the President,” and later, when the lack of postwar planning became plain to everyone, she wondered “if Steve had been right.”
Clinton’s book has none of this. She describes a “shouting match” with Leon Panetta over a drone strike but doesn’t tell us why voices were raised. She snaps once when a question is mistranslated and she thinks a student in Kinshasa is asking what her husband thinks. “My husband is not the Secretary of State. I am. So you ask my opinion and I will tell you my opinion.” The young man was asking about Obama’s opinion, not Bill Clinton’s.
It’s hard to imagine the author of this book snapping about much of anything. The tone is easy, confident, and placid. It starts after the 2008 election, with Clinton feeling like she let her supporters down but anxious to repair relations with Obama. She portrays her relationship with her opponent as brusque but cordial, like the opposing football coaches greeting each other after a game. Then, when Obama has beaten her, she describes the two of them like teenagers on a first date.
Though she admits to some early tensions between “Hillaryland” and “Obamaworld,” the book only glances at the tensions between the State Department and the National Security Council. Clinton occasionally ascribes political thinking to the White House, and talks about the political urge among Obama’s aides to hunker down and go into damage control, but those asides are mild and infrequent.
When Clinton holds a different view than her president, as she did on big issues like arming the Syrian opposition and pressuring former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, there is no rancor.* The entire message of the book is that foreign policy is hard and complicated, so when Obama goes another route, Clinton explains that it was a reasonable path to take having weighed all the complexities.
If two wrongs don’t make a right, this book seems to operate under the theory that 381 rights might overcome a wrong. Clinton repeats her regret about voting for the Iraq war but upgrades her language. “I was wrong,” she says. But on so many other issues, however, Clinton always seems to be right. She told the Obama campaign not to attack Sarah Palin when John McCain first picked her as his running mate. She was “an early voice calling publicly for Palestinian statehood.” Her “diplomatic intervention in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall was the only thing standing in the way of a more explosive confrontation.” She warned Middle Eastern leaders before the Arab Spring uprising “that if they did not embrace reform their region was going to sink into the sand.” After Mubarak was ousted, Clinton “came away worried that they would end up handing the country to the Muslim Brotherhood or the military by default, which in the end is exactly what happened.” She reports that world leaders agreed with her assessment and started using her language. The book falls into a pattern where either events lead up to a confirmation of her perceptive initial take or her wisdom is the only thing leading to a good result. “Some of the President’s advisors, keeping their eyes on the reelection campaign, were allergic to the idea of any apology,” she writes after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed accidentally by U.S. forces. But Clinton explains why it’s important to soothe Pakistani feelings to keep supply lines open for U.S. troops. And whaddya know: It worked!
Clinton does not stop to engage in introspection about the Iraq decision or any evolutions in her positions or mistakes she might have made. The hard choices she writes about are ones where she and the president are managing vast, complex interlocking interests with no clear path. She writes, for example, that Syria was a “wicked problem.” But what she does not tell us is what she learned from blowing any of the hard choices. She regrets her Iraq vote, the deaths in Benghazi, and that the United States didn’t do more to help Iranian protesters, but she’s not going to put herself on the couch. At one point she writes, “Your critics can actually teach you lessons your friends can’t or won’t. I try to sort out the motivation for criticism whether partisan, ideological, commercial, or sexist, analyze it to see what I might learn from it, and discard the rest.” It would have been fascinating to see some evidence of this in the book.
Secretary Clinton certainly doesn’t put herself on the couch when it comes to the attack on Benghazi. Clinton devotes two chapters to Libya. The first is about the messy and perilous process of keeping the coalition together. Like several passages in the book—on Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, and even China—there is a good pace to developments and the back-and-forth will be interesting for anyone who’d like to know more about the competing interests of nations. It feels like a lively textbook. The chapter on the attack on Benghazi recounts events and reprises the spirited defense she and her team have been making for months.
As a campaign document, Hard Choices presents the picture of a methodical, hardworking public servant. For voters who worry about a complex world, Clinton will be the candidate most equipped to show voters that they will not be taking a risk by putting the world in her hands. But if Hillary Clinton decides to run for president, the election will be decided by what voters feel about the economy. Clinton closes the book talking about the unresolved economic challenges facing the country—student debt, a weak job market, and a struggling middle class. They were the ones that she wanted to get back to after her 2008 primary loss, she writes in the book’s opening pages, before Obama convinced her to be his secretary of state. Now she has a chance to return to those issues as a presidential candidate, if she wants to. “Will I run for President in 2016?” she asks. “The answer is, I haven’t decided yet.” But 600 pages of safe, methodical writing suggest the answer is yes, and if she doesn’t run maybe she’ll write an epilogue and tell us what she really thinks.
*Correction, June 6, 2014: This article originally misstated that Clinton differed with Obama over arming the Syrian military. They differed over arming the Syrian opposition. (Return.)