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.)