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Enlightening ‘Secretary’ Offers Window into Hillary the Diplomat

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Hillary Rodham Clinton has assumed many roles over the past two decades: influential and controversial first lady, conscientious and impressive U.S. senator, ambitious and flawed presidential candidate, dogged and creative secretary of state, and now, retired and (mostly) revered stateswoman.

As for the future, many political analysts say there's a very good chance that Hillary Clinton will be elected president of the United States in 2016, making her the first woman to hold that office.

"The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power" by Kim Ghattas is a compelling and highly readable account of her tenure as secretary of state that also offers some clues about what kind of president she would be.

Ghattas has been the BBC's State Department radio and TV correspondent since 2008, and she traveled extensively with Clinton around the world as a member of the press corps. A Lebanese native, Ghattas was previously a Middle East correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times based in Beirut.

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Photo: Henry Holt / Metropolitan Books / Times Books

In some ways, reading "The Secretary" is like watching a Broadway play from the front row. You see the main actors as they move on and off stage, deliver their lines, and glide through their well-choreographed dance steps. It's a wonderful place to view the show, but its very proximity creates limitations. You don't see the entire stage equally well and you never get a panoramic perspective of the unfolding performance. Importantly, you don't see what is going on backstage, where the actors prepare for their entrances and retreat after their departures.

"The Secretary" gives readers a front-row seat to observe Hillary Clinton take center stage as she crisscrosses the planet during President Barack Obama's first term, conducting her unique brand of personal diplomacy.

The Hillary Clinton depicted in "The Secretary" is recognizable, even familiar. She's forceful, confident, exuberant, energetic, disciplined, organized, pragmatic and purposeful. Assuming the role of America's top diplomat in January of 2009, she set out to repair the strained relationships and frayed alliances after the tumultuous Bush years. She tried to build the foundation for a new era in American diplomacy in which the United States serves as the world's chief organizer rather than the planet's enforcer.

"I'd watched her position herself at the heart of the world's community of foreign policy deciders and experts and become the connector," Ghattas writes. "Just as Washington sat at the heart of a web of connections tying it to the world, Hillary was a center of gravity to herself. From the day she took office, she had worked hard to be available to her counterparts, both because she believed in being accessible but also because availability was political capital. Her personal contacts with ministers, presidents and princes, either recent or decades-old, meant there was a huge amount of bandwidth that allowed for communications not to clog up or break down when a major crisis erupted."

"The Secretary" vividly depicts the frantic pace of modern diplomacy and reveals what it's like to be a celebrity American secretary of state. Clinton traveled nearly a million miles in her job and met with an unending parade of political leaders, diplomats and members of civil society — in stately palaces, rancorous town halls and mud huts. From Clinton's vantage point, the world never stopped throwing challenges and opportunities at her and her team of diplomats.

"In makeshift offices in hotels around the world, on the seventh floor of the (State Department) Building, in the West Wing, at the Pentagon, or aboard SAM (her plane), officials went from one crisis to the next, from one urgent matter to the following," Ghattas writes. "The adrenaline never receded. The news cycle was relentless, and long gone were the days when top officials in Washington stopped working at six thirty to watch the evening news and then awaited their morning paper to find out if there were any agenda setters. Every tweet, every blog, every morning, midday and evening show was a news maker and a crisis alert, and every pundit declared the administration a failure if it hadn't found a solution within five minutes of a problem erupting."

Ghattas nicely captures both the electricity and the drudgery experienced by the State Department press corps as they traveled the planet with Clinton. Squeezed into the back of Clinton's 757 Boeing aircraft, their home away from home, they would hold a lottery for the best seats at the start of each trip and brace for journeys that would often take them to several countries and more than a half dozen events in a single day. Sometimes they weren't even told where they were going until they landed there.

"Traveling with the secretary of state sometimes meant an incongruous combination of deprivation, luxury resort accommodations and explosive conflicts," Ghattas recalled.

Experts continue to debate just how much effort Clinton expended responding to the crisis du jour and hop-scotching the globe versus shaping actual foreign policy. Her critics say she was more of a conduit for the Obama administration than a source of decision-making. But "The Secretary" makes clear that she waded into some of America's thorniest foreign policy dilemmas, with excellent chapters on how Clinton tried to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab Spring, America's blossoming relationship with Turkey, its constantly strained relationship with Pakistan, and especially Clinton's remarkable trip to Myanmar (Burma) to meet that nation's political leaders and the revered Aung San Suu Kyi.

According to Ghattas, Clinton prepared for this trip, especially her meeting with Suu Kyi, like an honors student preparing for a critical exam. She devoured State Department briefing materials, browsed books, and even watched a film about Suu Kyi called "The Lady." The meetings between two of the world's most prominent women quickly became warm and relaxed, as each basked in the presence of someone who had fought through adversity and emerged as a global icon.

Ghattas nicely connects Clinton's work as secretary of state to her own life growing up in war-torn Beirut in the 1980s and 1990s. She describes how America's policies and power profoundly affect the lives of people in other nations who are often stunned to learn the United States often acts haphazardly without a long-term plan for their countries. This personal linkage to Lebanon resonates throughout the book, as Ghattas, perhaps like the subject she writes about, must grapple with the limits of U.S. power and the double-edged sword of American intervention, welcomed by some nations and abhorred by others.

But Ghattas also runs the risk of becoming too close to her subject, clouding her judgment. Her account of Clinton is based on traveling about 300,000 miles with her, observing the secretary of state in hundreds of diplomatic encounters and speaking with her in both informal conversations and formal interviews. This access allows her to write a vivid account, but one that sometimes loses perspective.

For example, in writing about the release of thousands of diplomatic cables during the WikiLeaks debacle, Ghattas describes the event as a "long-term crisis" for U.S. diplomacy and seems to discount the understated but wise judgment of then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. "The fact is," Gates said, "governments deal with the United States because it's in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets."

This problem of proportion is evident in several sections of the book. Ghattas provides a very detailed account of the Shanghai Expo in 2010 but devotes only a paragraph to the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden. While this operation was not led by the State Department, Clinton was deeply involved in the deliberations and was, as a famous Situation Room photo shows, at the White House when the raid was conducted. What was her contribution to the overall operation? How did it affect her already strained diplomacy with Pakistan? These interesting questions are not addressed.

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Photo: Dina Debbas
Kim Ghattas, a BBC correspondent since 2008 and author of "The Secretary," traveled extensively with Hillary Clinton around the world as a member of the State Department's press corps.

Ghattas also offers only a fleeting reference to the Copenhagen climate conference in December of 2009, saying it was "the most disorganized gathering Hillary had attended since her eighth grade student council." She briefly mentions that Obama and Clinton decided to barge uninvited into a private meeting with Chinese, Brazilian and Indian leaders and later cobbled together a last-minute deal with the developing world. But she doesn't discuss even the main elements of the accord or what its implications are for the United States and the world. This would have been an excellent place for Ghattas to discuss Clinton's role in climate change diplomacy and the debate within the Obama administration on the issue.

This gets to a much larger area that Ghattas neglects: Clinton's decision-making powers. First, she has little to say about Clinton's role in the formulation of the Obama administration's foreign policy. She writes that Clinton was never part of Obama's inner circle and hints at lingering tension between the two former political rivals. "Clinton was not a fan of Obama's lofty addresses, and he in turn didn't like her bluntness," she writes without disclosing how she knows this or what its broader implications were.

Ghattas notes that Clinton spent a lot of time at the White House attending meetings but does not describe how she fit into the administration's overall foreign policy team and what her relationships were with key officials such as Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Gates, U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, or the staff of the National Security Council.

Second, I would also have liked to learn more about how Clinton managed the State Department. Readers become familiar with Clinton's traveling entourage — Jake Sullivan, Huma Abedin, Philippe Reines and Lissa Muscatine — but we learn almost nothing about Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg or his successor Bill Burns or others in the next tier of the State Department.

What was the division of labor at Foggy Bottom? Did Clinton work on the big picture and travel or was she an active manager? Ghattas mentions that Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter directed the State Department's policy planning unit but doesn't describe how this group contributed to Clinton's diplomacy. Surprisingly, there is no mention of Slaughter's work on the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a pioneering report to revamp America's civilian power that Clinton embraced.

Ghattas does argue that Clinton made major changes to U.S. foreign policy, including the implementation of smart power that melds the persuasion of soft power with the coercion of hard power. She says that during Clinton's tenure the United States set up or expanded initiatives that included bilateral strategic dialogues, bilateral commissions, and scores of global programs that promoted entrepreneurship, civil society, digital diplomacy, maternal health, climate change and counterterrorism. She selected and dispatched special envoys to work on the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, human rights, women's rights, and youth empowerment. And the State Department became the world's most active foreign ministry in using social media to communicate America's message online. "Every day, the State Department worked to connect with countries, players and people everywhere," Ghattas writes. "Diplomacy was no longer just about formal talks with leaders. Smart power was exhausting but, in Clinton's view, essential."

Ghattas is cautious though in assessing how history will judge Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. She acknowledges that Clinton did not broker peace in the Middle East, persuade Iran to restrain its nuclear program, or place Afghanistan on a path to prosperity. But she believes the secretary of state made major contributions in "repositioning America as a leader in a changed world, a palatable global chairman of the board who can help navigate the coming crises, from climate change, to further economic turmoil, to demographic explosions."

Despite some holes, "The Secretary" is an enlightening read for those interested in U.S. foreign policy and one of America's most fascinating public figures. While not the final word on this latest chapter of Clinton's long public service career, the book is an interesting and colorful account of a consequential American diplomat who could very well become president of the United States in a few years. Presumably, Clinton would bring her unique blend of tenacity, charm, discipline and passion for personal diplomacy to the White House.


About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 26, 2013