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‘Hard Choices’: Hillary Clinton’s self-portrait of a tested policy wonk


Hilary Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’ was published Tuesday.


The rollout of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, Hard Choices, as a prelude to a possible 2016 run for the White House, has had all the subtlety of a military operation ramping up to full speed: the leak of the Benghazi chapter to Politico late last month (presumably to get talk about that hot-button topic out of the way early), the cover story in the latest issue of People magazine, the wall-to-wall lineup of television interviews this week, a grueling cross-country book tour.

The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk. Compared with her 2003 memoir, Living History — which tended to lapse into glib, stump-speech-like pronouncements and reactive efforts to blame assorted enemies for her and her husband’s travails — Hard Choices is a statesmanlike document intended to attest to Clinton’s wide-ranging experience on national security and on foreign policy. There is little news in the book. And unlike former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’s rawly candid memoir Duty, this volume is very much the work of someone who is keeping all her political options open — and who would like to be known not only for mastering the art of diplomacy, but also for having the policy chops to become chooser-in-chief.

“Hard Choices,” like Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, does not evince a grand, overarching foreign policy vision, as Henry A. Kissinger’s 1994 book “Diplomacy” did. Rather, Clinton displays a pragmatic, case-by-case modus operandi. Some critics have argued that she played it safe as secretary of state, that she had no marquee achievements like a Middle East peace accord. And her new book (written with an assist from what she calls her “book team”) suggests that Clinton’s main legacy lies in reorienting U.S. foreign policy in a globalized, tech-savvy 21st century, and in helping restore the country’s image abroad in the wake of the Iraq War and the unilateralism of President George W. Bush’s administration.

One of the few things this book shares with “Living History” is its emphasis on Clinton as someone capable of growth and change: an individual who says she learns from past mistakes like her 2002 vote to authorize military action in Iraq. (She “still got it wrong,” she writes of that vote. “Plain and simple.”)

“Hard Choices” seems meant to serve several purposes at once: to document Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state; to put her dysfunctional 2008 presidential campaign in the rearview mirror; to supplant memories of her tumultuous days as first lady (Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky) with images of her negotiating with leaders on the world stage; and to lift her above the partisan mudslinging of Washington.

The only chapter in which Clinton sounds defensive or defiant is the one on the 2012 attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya — the subject of continuing investigations by House Republicans, bent on asserting that President Barack Obama and Clinton covered up what they knew about the causes of the attack. “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans,” she writes.

Clinton has always been a conscientious A-student, and “Hard Choices” is methodically organized by country (China, Russia, Iran, etc.), region (the Middle East, Asia, Latin America) and topic (the Arab Spring, climate change, human rights). Though she does not possess the genial explanatory gifts of her husband (showcased in his 2011 book about the economy, “Back to Work”), she provides the lay reader — and potential voter — with succinct and often shrewd appraisals of the complex web of political, economic and historical forces in play around the world, and the difficulties American leaders face in balancing strategic concerns with “core values.” The tone is calm and measured, with occasional humorous asides, like describing an offer by Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, to take Bill Clinton along on a polar-bear tagging expedition.

More positive developments like the diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran are described in considerable detail, while more controversial subjects like drone warfare and the data collection programs of the National Security Agency get only cursory, talking-points treatment. Beltway readers will not learn much new here about matters like the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Afghanistan or its counterterrorism policies.

For readers who are less policy-oriented, there are personal tidbits strewn lightly throughout, like small chocolate Easter eggs. Clinton tells us she would fight jet lag by sometimes digging “the fingernails of one hand into the palm of the other”; that she kept the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hide-out secret from her husband (“They told me not to tell anyone, so I didn’t tell anyone”); that Obama once called her aside before an international meeting for what she thought was a sensitive consultation, only to hear him whisper in her ear, “You’ve got something in your teeth.”

Clinton’s views are perceived as often more hawkish than Obama’s, and in these pages, she walks a delicate line between being his loyal lieutenant and articulating her own beliefs. She takes a hard line on Putin, writing that “hard men present hard choices” and “strength and resolve were the only language” the Russian leader understood. Of her unsuccessful argument within the administration for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels, she writes: “No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the President’s call and I respected his deliberations and decision.”

Addressing much-chronicled tensions between the State Department and White House advisers, Clinton enumerates some of her differences with them in the book — including her counsel of caution to Obama in pressing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step aside in the face of mounting street protests in Cairo. She also writes that it was painful to see her old friend Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat she had chosen to handle the Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio, “marginalized and undercut” by younger White House aides who disliked his flamboyant, old-school style.

Of her own plans — whether to run for president — Clinton writes that she has not decided yet. It’s “another hard choice” coming up.

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