Every secretary of state, we’re told, is going to be different from those who came before, but traditional demands inevitably take precedence.
New secretaries of state always seek to portray their tenure as a bold departure from the immediate past. The secretary’s staff and the State Department press corps both have an interest in creating a striking image for the new occupant of our nation’s most prestigious Cabinet position. The secretary’s aides are eager to attract attention and positive coverage for their boss. The reporters must deal with editors, producers, and audiences interested in novelty. Yet both parties face a hurdle: The job of secretary of state is, by its very nature, one whose daily staples are diplomacy, bureaucracy, and (usually) continuity. Novelty, in other words, can be hard to come by. Given this problem, one standard approach has been to emphasize how different the secretary is from his or her predecessor.
Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, established herself not merely as the first woman to be secretary of state but as someone blunter and more colorful than her predecessor, the gray, ever-circumspect Warren Christopher. After Colin Powell replaced Albright, his supporters boosted his image by pointing to his broader knowledge of military and security affairs: He already had served as both national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After Powell, who discovered that the key decisions on war with Iraq seemed to be made in his absence, it was said of Condoleezza Rice that it was nice to have a secretary of state who enjoyed a close relationship with the President.
Enter Hillary Clinton. Over the past decades, many politicians have run the Pentagon, most of them former members of Congress (Mel Laird, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Les Aspin, Bill Cohen, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel)—no doubt because one of the principal tasks for any secretary of defense is to win congressional approval of the defense budget. Politicians have run the CIA as well: George H.W. Bush, Porter Goss, Panetta. But in 2009 Clinton became the first elected politician in nearly three decades to serve as secretary of state (and the last two before her, Ed Muskie in the Carter Administration and Christian Herter in the Eisenhower years, were only replacement secretaries who filled in at the tail end of their Administrations).
Clinton wasn’t close to the President. When she started the job, she had little experience in diplomacy. Almost inevitably, Clinton, her staff, and the reporters covering her turned her profile as politician into the defining feature of her role as secretary of state. As she crisscrossed the globe, Clinton hosted town meetings, met with civic groups, gave speeches, held press conferences, and sat for interview after interview. In truth, some of her predecessors had undertaken such activities, too; the concept of public diplomacy has taken on ever-greater importance in foreign policy over the past two decades. But it’s fair to say that none of her predecessors did as many public events as Clinton.
After all the sound and fury, what should we make of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state? How much difference did all of her globe-trotting and public events make for American foreign policy? What did she accomplish in concrete terms?
Kim Ghattas’s new book, The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power, presents itself as an effort to answer these questions. Ghattas, raised in Beirut as the daughter of a Lebanese father and Dutch mother, is a BBC correspondent who served first in the Middle East and then in Washington. Assigned to cover the State Department in 2008, she was a regular in the press corps covering and traveling with Clinton throughout her four years on the job.
Her book is a blend of three narratives: the story of Ghattas’s own journey of discovery from Beirut to Washington; the story of America’s changing role in the world, as the Obama Administration sought to readjust American foreign policy in light of our financial constraints; and the story of Clinton’s impact during her four years as secretary of state.
The job of secretary has changed profoundly over the past 40 years because of two developments. The first was the dramatic growth in power of the national security adviser in response to a growing need for someone in the White House to coordinate the activities of the State Department with America’s other foreign-policy bureaucracies. That change dates back to the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, but it burst into national consciousness with the arrival of Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House.
The second change came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the job had gone to crusty men, often lawyers, whose principal virtue was discretion and whose principal activity was carrying out diplomacy behind closed doors: John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk, Cyrus Vance, George Shultz. But in the post-Cold War milieu, the job seemed to require a secretary who could represent the United States in public around the globe—someone who could lend a new face to American foreign policy and could put more vivid words behind it. Christopher was the last of the old breed. Starting with Albright, the job of secretary of state began to go to public figures, comfortable in the limelight. These secretaries, it turned out, found their authority circumscribed by the National Security Council (with the exception of Rice, who had already served as her Administration’s national security adviser).
Clinton represented the apotheosis of the new breed of secretary. The public sphere was Clinton’s own realm, the one she had lived in for decades. Ghattas’s book describes well the talents she brought to this part of the job. “If there was one thing Hillary didn’t need to learn, it was how to be in the limelight,” Ghattas writes. “She seamlessly fit into the role of a popular secretary of state, reveling in the attention of her foreign counterparts, attention that came with none of the bitter sniping of American politics.” Behind Clinton stood the retinue that Ghattas calls Hillaryland: the coterie of aides she had accumulated during her political campaigns, such as her chief of staff Cheryl Mills, who was shown in recent congressional investigations to have tried to manage the political fallout from the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Hillary, Ghattas observes, was “a political powerhouse in her own right, and she was bigger than the job of secretary of state—the job would have to fit her, not the other way around.”
She knew how far to go in public, how to please audiences, and, occasionally, when to confront. When television journalists in Pakistan complained insistently about conditions placed on American aid to their country, she didn’t mince words: “You do not have to take this money,” she replied. “Nobody is saying you must take this money so that we can help you rebuild your energy sector or put more kids in school or provide better maternal and child health. You don’t have to take the money.” Well said.
While Ghattas had excellent access to Clinton, penetrating beyond Clinton’s spinmeisters and her public persona seems to have proved challenging. We don’t gain enough insight into what makes her tick, what she believed, or how much she mattered to the Obama Administration’s policies. To take one perplexing example: Clinton is described, in Ghattas’s book and virtually every other account of the Administration, as having been loyal to Obama. She is also depicted as having chafed at times at the dominant, controlling role the Obama White House assumed over foreign policy. Yet in Ghattas’s account, these dynamics fade into the background, and Clinton and her State Department are depicted as if they were autonomous actors, giving us little sense of Clinton’s interactions with the White House.
For instance, Clinton delivered a stinging speech in Doha, Qatar, in early 2011 in which she denounced corruption in Arab societies and Arab leaders who “cling to the status quo.” In The Secretary, this speech is described as having been purely Clinton’s, with motivations that were to some extent personal: She is said to have wanted to break through to Arab leaders not listening to her. Yet at the time Clinton spoke, the Obama White House was desperately trying to cope, on a daily basis, with the Arab Spring protests and the problem of how to handle Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It seems likely that Clinton’s speech was coordinated closely with the White House, vetted by the White House, or even conceivably delivered at the behest of the White House.
There are occasions when The Secretary lapses into sappy descriptions of Clinton. “With her interlocutors, Hillary always reacted first as a person, as a mother,” Ghattas writes. The depiction of Clinton’s meeting in Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi is downright mawkish: “The two women slipped into an easy conversation, as if they had known each other for years and had spoken regularly….[They] then exploded in laughter before walking away together, like two long-lost sisters.” Such passages seem almost like a voice-over for the inevitable Hillary biopic at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Yet Ghattas redeems herself elsewhere with other details and anecdotes about Clinton, not all of them flattering. She lets us know that Clinton and Hillaryland were chronically late for meetings, just as Bill Clinton famously was. Clinton showed up for work at the State Department each morning three hours later than Condoleezza Rice, who arrived at 5 a.m. (My sympathies lie entirely with Clinton on this one.) Ghattas has a superb, detailed account of Clinton’s role in spearheading the Administration’s efforts to limit the damage caused by WikiLeaks’s release of cables from U.S. embassies around the world. (She reports that the CIA’s WikiLeaks Task Force assigned to assess the damage to American interests carried the priceless acronym “WTF.”) And we learn in other portions of the book that Clinton did not always react to interlocutors as a mother—see, for instance, her downright frosty attitude toward Yemen’s thuggish President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Ghattas’s own story—which she weaves throughout her own coverage of Clinton—turns out to be a compelling one. She and her publisher must have decided, understandably, that by itself her personal narrative would attract fewer readers than a book about Hillary Clinton. Yet it is the Ghattas story that gives the book both passion and insight.
Ghattas came to the State Department beat with memories of how American power affected daily life when she was young. Her native Lebanon was in the midst of its long civil war; the Ghattas family lived in a divided city, with shelling all around them. Every day, she and her friends would examine the words of U.S. officials to figure out the nuances and what they might mean for their lives in Beirut.
In Washington, years later, Ghattas found herself on the other side of that lens. Inside the State Department’s “bubble,” she kept track of the crises and changing alignments of many countries at a time; no one of them seemed as important as America seemed to her family when she was growing up. She describes how odd it felt when Clinton visited Lebanon in 2009: “I was in the motorcade that irritated the hell out of me when I was living in Beirut, stuck in a traffic jam because roads had been blocked off for the American ambassador….I felt strange, like a traitor, as if I had crossed to the other side.” When Clinton, at a Beirut press conference, pointed out Ghattas within the press corps (“as some of you know, Kim is Lebanese”), Ghattas felt tainted by the gesture. “I felt she used me to make a connection with the Lebanese people at a time of tension in the country, when the United States was trying to shore up support for Western-friendly politicians,” she writes.
She regularly tested what she saw in Washington against how it would be perceived in Beirut. People in Lebanon assumed that anything the State Department spokesman said was a major new policy pronouncement that carried profound meaning, resulting from days of high-level deliberations, when in fact it could be either a rehash or an improvised, on-the-spot response to a reporter’s unexpected question. To test this out, on a couple of occasions Ghattas asked the spokesman a routine question about Lebanon. The responses produced little that was new, but they were invariably reported as big news back home, touching off waves of analysis about what America might be up to now in Lebanon.
Ghattas wrestles at length with this question of American power—how much of it there is, what it means, and whether it will or should endure. Despite the rise of new powers like China, Brazil, and Turkey, she observes, “The United States also wanted and needed to remain at the center…[T]he superpower wasn’t about to let go of the reins.” While she is uncomfortable with a world run from Washington, she also finds that other countries still seek and depend on American power and don’t know what else would replace it.
If Clinton runs for President, it will no doubt be tempting for her aides and supporters to hype her modest accomplishments as secretary of state. That would be a mistake, not least because it would be succumbing to having her judged by an unfair standard.
She did play a role in helping to restore America’s relations with the world after the Iraq War, although Obama and the sheer passage of time mattered more than she did. She had a hand in executing the Administration’s reorientation toward Asia and its intervention in Libya. But in the end, this was not her Administration. While a spotlight was always on Clinton as a leading actor, the script and direction came from elsewhere. The far better argument, from Clinton’s own point of view, would be that her four years running the State Department amounted to the best imaginable on-the-job training for anyone who wants to run foreign policy as President of the United States. She would come to the White House with more hands-on foreign-policy experience than anyone in the past half-century besides George H.W. Bush.
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