“Talk of America’s decline has become commonplace, but my faith in our future has never been greater. While there are few problems in today’s world that the United States can solve alone, there are even fewer that can be solved without the United States,” Hillary Clinton wrote in the author’s note that begins her latest memoir, Hard Choices.
And Clinton is “proud” of her diplomatic accomplishments.
Excerpts from the memoir describe her time in the United States Department of State in sweeping terms. “I approached my work with confidence in our country’s enduring strengths and purpose, and humility about how much remains beyond our knowledge and control,” Clinton wrote. I worked to reorient American foreign policy around what I call ‘smart power.’” She also expounded on her world view. “We have to use all of America’s strengths to build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries, more shared responsibility and fewer conflicts, more good jobs and less poverty, more broadly based prosperity with less damage to our environment,” the former Secretary of State explained. And while she acknowledged that “as is usually the case with the benefit of hindsight, I wish we could go back and revisit certain choices,” she is “proud of what we accomplished,” referring to the Obama administration.
But, given Clinton may be a presidential candidate in 2016 and that she served as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as president, her “accomplishments” are worthy of detailed examination. She notes that the book was written for those “who who want to understand how leaders and nations can work together and why they sometimes collide, and how their decisions affect all our lives: How a collapsing economy in Athens, Greece, affects businesses in Athens, Georgia. How a revolution in Cairo, Egypt, impacts life in Cairo, Illinois. What a tense diplomatic encounter in St. Petersburg, Russia, means for families in St. Petersburg, Florida.” That excerpt does little to bolster Clinton’s image as skilled diplomat or to highlight her diplomatic savvy. And while she explicitly states that the autobiography (memoir) was not written for the “followers of Washington’s long-running soap opera,” there is a line between those who will see it as evidence of the Obama administration’s failings in foreign policy and those who will comb its pages for her accomplishments in order to better understand the stateswoman Hillary Clinton was.
Her autobiography, released on June 10, provides the opportunity to review both her diplomatic accomplishments as Secretary of State and her legislative successes as a senator for New York state. The glaring question is how did she specifically reorient American foreign policy.
1. Osama Bin Laden
Alongside ending the Iraq War, chief among the Obama administration’s foreign policy accomplishments — a list the president’s critics say is dismally short — is the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
“Perhaps the most famous example [of how the government worked to keep America safe, strong, and prosperous] from my four years as Secretary of State was President Obama’s order to send a team of Navy SEALs into a moonless Pakistani night to bring Osama bin Laden to justice,” wrote Clinton in Hard Choices. “The President’s top advisors were divided. The intelligence was compelling, but far from definitive. The risks of failure were daunting. The stakes were significant for America’s national security, our battle against al Qaeda, and our relationship with Pakistan. Most of all, the lives of those brave SEALs and helicopter pilots hung in the balance. It was as crisp and courageous a display of leadership as I’ve ever seen.”
Describing Obama’s role as crisp and courageous will of course draw criticism. Not only has his administration’s stance on foreign policy has hurt the president’s approval rating in recent months, but, as the congressional midterm election cycle enters high gear, the claim that Obama has been too passive on the international sphere has gained more credence. And as former member of his cabinet, Clinton is vulnerable to that criticism as well.
Leaving criticism behind, defining Hillary Clinton’s role in the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden is a necessary task; after all, at the time she was Secretary of State, the president’s top adviser on foreign affairs. Her autobiography — which critics have panned as “contrived and newsless” — described her role fairly clear. According to both her own recollection and those of other members of the Obama administration, she not only supported maneuver before the president, but was also the only one of his top cabinet officials to argue in its favor throughout the weeks of debate in 2011. That raid, which ended with the death of the fugitive al-Qaeda leader, was a risky decision that paid off for the Obama administration. And for Clinton, it may be the most politically rewarding decisions of career if she does decide to run for president.
“What she looks like is someone decisive, smart and risk-taking in the right way,” Robert Shrum, a top strategist on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, told The Washington Post. “This wasn’t about risking thousands or tens of thousands of American troops. This was about taking a risk that if it failed would hurt her and the president, but it’s the kind of thing you do if you are president or if you are secretary of state.” But her involvement in the raid is not necessary a pure political win. Republican critics have questioned whether Clinton is taking too much credit for the raid. And, the fact she highlighted her involvement in the capture of bin Laden could be problematic, as it has the potential to alienate more liberal Democrats, reminding them of her hawkish leanings.
2. The Iraq War Vote
Analysts have theorized that Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize military action in Iraq cost her the Democrat nomination in 2008. She struggled to explain the reason for her vote, while Obama profited off his on-the-record opposition to the invasion. The anti-war speech delivered by Barack Obama in October of 2002 made him a favorite of the Democrat party. Beginning by stating that he did not oppose all wars, the then-Senator told those assembled at a Chicago anti-war rally that “after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears” brought on by the September 11 terrorist attacks, “I supported [the Bush] administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again.”But Obama made clear that he was opposed “a dumb war.”
On several occasions Clinton has admitted she made the wrong choice. “Obviously, if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn’t have been a vote,” she said in a 2006 interview on NBC’s Today Show. “And I certainly wouldn’t have voted that way.” But where that statement was focused on the misleading information colored her vote, the admission in Hard Choices is that she was wrong. “I should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible. … I held out against using the word mistake. It wasn’t because of political expediency. … [I]n our culture, saying you made a mistake is often taken as weakness when in fact it can be a sign of strength and growth for people and nations.” With these two concise sentences — “I got it wrong. Plain and simple,” wrote Clinton.
3. Arming Syrian Rebels
Last July, the Free Syrian Army — fighting both the Syrian government and more radical rebels — asked Washington for heavy-duty military support. At that time, following more than two years of fighting, the country’s civil war had left more than 100,000 civilians dead. Even though the Obama administration has been reluctant to entangle itself in foreign conflicts, the U.S. agreed to a small arms deal. While some Republicans lawmakers argued against arming the rebels, fearing the weapons would end up in the hands of terrorists, others — including Sen. John McCain of Arizona — pushed for greater military aid.
“The risks of both action and inaction were high. Both choices would bring unintended consequences. The President’s inclination was to stay the present course and not take the significant further step of arming rebels,” she wrote, according to an excerpt published by CBS News. Of course, this commentary clearly showcases the break in policy aims between the secretary of state and the president. But still that excerpt worked to paint Obama, with little subtlety, as a careful and balanced administrator. “No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the President’s call and I respected his deliberations and decision,” Clinton added to her discussion of the Syrian Civil War. “From the beginning of our partnership, he had promised me that I would always get a fair hearing. And I always did. In this case, my position didn’t prevail.”
4. Bergdahl Prisoner Transfer
Clinton’s Hard Choices also touches on just-rescued Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009. The Obama administration agreed to release five high-ranking Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl, and that transfer has been criticized by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as the American public, for a number of reasons: he might have deserted, it is possible that he sympathized with the Haqqani network holding him captive, and the released detainees could pose a threat to American national security. Obama has maintained that he has “no apologies” for the decision, and, in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer that aired Friday, Clinton said the questions regarding the circumstances of his disappearance are unimportant, echoing the president’s own view. “It doesn’t matter,” Clinton stated. “We bring our people home.” Yet, she did not answer when asked how she would have approved the deal had she still been Secretary of State.
“I think this was a very hard choice, which is why I think my book is aptly named,” Clinton said, regarding to the Bergdahl transfer. “If you look at what the factors were going into the decision, of course there are competing interests and values. And one of our values is we bring everybody home off the battlefield the best we can. It doesn’t matter how they ended up in a prisoner of war situation.”
But according to the Daily Beast, Clinton did press for stricter conditions on the release of the Taliban detainees when she was secretary of state. And in her own writing, she expressed misgivings about the negotiations. Opening the door to negotiations with the Taliban would be hard to swallow for many Americans after so many years of war,” Clinton wrote, according to the excerpt published by CBS. “You don’t make peace with your friends,” she testified before Congress in October 2011. “There first would have to be a demonstrated willingness on the Taliban’s part to negotiate and to meet the conditions already laid out for joining negotiations.”
As CNN reported, the former Secretary of State had wanted the detainee transfer to be part of a series of confidence-building measures, of which a Taliban renunciation of terrorism was also key.
“I was the one ultimately responsible for my people’s safety, and I never felt that responsibility more deeply than I did that day,” Clinton wrote of the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. But, the former secretary also maintained that she “will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans. It’s just plain wrong, and it’s unworthy of our great country. Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me.” However, she did take responsibility for the “horror” those deaths.
Republicans in Congress have made the incident a symbol of the failings of the Obama administration. In intervening months, conservative lawmakers have accused the White House of covering up mistakes made by administration’s in the aftermath of the attack. The party has long characterized Obama as too weak in asserting American power abroad, and Benghazi fueled debates during the 2012 as the incident has in the lead up to November’s congressional midterm elections.
The thirty-four-page chapter titled “Benghazi: Under Attack,” which was first leaked to Politico, was penned as a detailed rebuttal to her critics. If she runs for president, her role in the incident will be combed over minutely, and her account in Hard Choices creates a counter-narrative to the claims made by Republicans.
In her defense, Clinton wrote that she order an investigation into the terrorist attack nine days later and agreed with the twenty-nine recommendations made by the special panel called an Accountability Review Board, which was headed by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering. But her actions did not satisfy many lawmakers, which she also addressed in the chapter. While Clinton noted that she understands the “oversight role that Congress is meant to play,” the former senator made a criticism of her own: “Many of these same people are a broken record about unanswered questions. But there is a difference between unanswered questions and unlistened to answers,” she wrote.
In subsequent pages, Clinton addressed the administration’s intelligence regarding the terrorist attack. The White House has acknowledged that it did initially blame the assault on the American diplomatic mission solely on fallout from the circulation of the “Innocence of Muslims” video, which sparked protest across the Middle East for its derogatory depiction of the prophet Muhammad. A conclusion that was later proved to far from the whole story. And that error has been debated many times in the congressional hearings into the attacks. “There were scores of attackers that night, almost certainly with differing motives,” she writes. “It is inaccurate to state that every single one of them was influenced by this hateful video. It is equally inaccurate to state that none of them were. Both assertions defy not only the evidence but logic as well.”
And what about 2016?
The autobiography, which many see as a precursor to a 2016 presidential campaign, has not received outstanding reviews.
Not everyone agrees that Hard Choices is a campaign dry run. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus would like to remind voters that speaking engagements and books like this one (which is her third) help Clinton make money. Meaning this book is not a clear sign that she is preparing a presidential run. “I know publishers of the book create this environment to make a lot of money. That’s what Hillary Clinton is doing. She’s making a lot of money. She’s writing books. She’s doing speeches. All this talk helps her make money. As long as she’s making money, she’s going to keep this up,” he said on Fox News Sunday, arguing Clinton may not run for president after all.
But, nonetheless, Ready for Hillary, a super-political action committee based in a Virginia suburb outside Washington D.C., has raised $5.7 million from about 55,000 donors since it was launched in 2013. And that significant amount of cash represents the strongest campaign infrastructure of any potential 2016 Democratic candidates.
Critics generally agrees that the book, while far from revealing, was written by someone who wants to be president.
“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,” John Dickerson wrote for Slate. “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.”
The assessment of David Ignatius of The Washington Post was similar. “Judged as a political document, the book will probably serve Clinton well,” he commented. “It lays out the case that she was a good secretary of state and a good person; it includes a forceful defense of her role in Benghazi, along with many believable passages about her enduring love for her sometimes faithless husband, Bill. There’s nothing here that seems likely to get her in trouble with anyone, which is doubtless good politics but a bad thing to say about a memoir.”
Given so many critics saw the book to be “newsless,” the book is generally not creating too many waves. What has drawn criticism is Clinton’s comment to ABC’s Sawyer regarding her financial condition in 2000. “We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt,” she said. “We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.” While Bill Clinton was paid $200,000 annually during his eight years as president, the legal fees from Whitewater and the impeachment trial eat up a significant portion. And that was the reason the Clintons charged six-figures for speeches. Both she and Bill earned considerable incomes in the years after leaving the White House; Hillary both earned an $8 million advance to publish her first memoir, Living History and drew an annual salary of $186,000 as secretary of state, while Bill was paid a reported $15 million advance for his memoir, My Life. Those earnings allowed the couple to pay their debts, and allowed the couple to acquire luxury real estate assets — including a $1.7 million mansion in Chappaqua, New York. When the Clintons released tax returns during Hillary’s 2008 presidential run, the papers showed they had earned $109 million over eight years.
After the interview aired, Priebus tweeted, “How out of touch is Hillary Clinton when ‘dead broke’ = mansions & massive speaking fees?”
And the criticism forced Clinton to explain her comments. “Let me just clarify that I fully appreciate how hard life is for so many Americans today,” Clinton told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “Bill and I were obviously blessed. We worked hard for everything we got in our lives and we continue to work hard, and we’ve been blessed in the last 14 years. So for me it’s just a reality what we faced when he got out of the White House, it meant that we just had to keep working really hard.”
More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:
- Tumblr Takes the White House: How Social Media Is Changing Politics
- Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Immigration, and 2016
- Is Mississippi Proof the Tea Party Can Still Cannibalize the GOP?
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS