Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 656 pp., $35)
Reading Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her State Department years is like wading through an ocean of oatmeal. Cloying, tiring (sometimes to the point of exhaustion), and as controversy-free as possible, the more than 600 pages of Hard Choices are a hard slog. The book reveals precious little new information, it is overloaded with clichés, and the superficiality of its policy analysis is remarkable even for the campaign-biography genre.
That may be exactly what Hillary and Bill intended. Whether Hard Choices enlightens or educates, or whether it sells many copies, is, for the Clintons, beside the point. They are focused on the politics rather than the policy of Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state, and on how that tenure might enhance their ongoing 2016 presidential effort. Polishing her thin record, excising or at least recasting her mistakes, and, perhaps most important, anaesthetizing her critics are the real priorities. And if my reaction is any indication, the chloroform technique could well work. The crushing effect of the clichés alone may be enough. Really, how much can readers be expected to endure of repeated references to high-wire acts, hard truths, “facing the world as it is,” the need to “keep my eyes wide open,” foreign leaders “riding high horses,” “the legacy of history hanging heavy” over issues, and — not to be forgotten — those clever Israelis who “made the desert bloom”? And did I mention “hard choices”?
The rollout of Hard Choices was intended as a testament both to the Clintons’ massive media support network and to their enduring political skills, at least where all of the variables are essentially under their control. Surprisingly, even under these most favorable of circumstances, the opening barrage of interviews did not go well. Hillary couldn’t articulate her key accomplishments at State (not that the book itself is any better), and she was snappish and defensive even under questioning from such presumable media friendlies as NPR and ABC News. How she and Bill will look when scrutiny intensifies from outside the mainstream media is now a much more interesting question.
Now that the rollout is over, and the focus can shift from campaign glitter to substance, the picture for Hillary Clinton doesn’t get any better. Her defenses in the book are the best that years of political-spin strategizing and word massaging could produce. None of the arguments presented there will improve with time, so it is significant how little there is in Hard Choices to support a second Clinton presidency, based on Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state. Concededly, she faced a delicate task: obscuring her minimal influence on policy decisions in Obama’s first term (which, ironically, will provide her campaign numerous opportunities to distance itself from Obama’s policies when necessary), while simultaneously avoiding having her essential powerlessness on key issues undercut her résumé’s most important qualification for the White House.
On Iraq, for example, while Hillary focuses on trying to put her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq behind her, thus apologizing to the Democratic party’s Left, she spends precious little time assessing what happened in Iraq while she was secretary. Given today’s sectarian violence and the possible disintegration of the country, she will find it difficult to establish distance from Obama on Iraq even though she is no longer in his administration.
Hillary’s sleight-of-hand is accomplished partially by organizing Hard Choices along subject-matter lines rather than chronologically. While no memoir can ever be strictly chronological and still maintain any narrative coherence, Hillary has gone very nearly to the opposite extreme. Her memoir is less history than a collection of discrete essays on specific subjects.
And after a while, the essays begin to read much the same: I first visited [Country X] as First Lady [with/without Bill]. X has a fascinating history [fluff out as appropriate]. I next visited as a senator, and met [this, that, and the other] political figure/women’s leader/prominent dissident. During my first trip as secretary of state, I spoke at [name college campus], and met many fascinating woman students. Then I made some hard choices and exchanged tough words with Country X’s leaders. I close with fond words about Bill and Barack and how proud I am of our collective record. Lots of traveling and talking, but not a lot of thinking.
Nonetheless, despite the best efforts of Hillary’s “book team” (the new euphemism for “ghostwriters”), important insights about her Cabinet tenure, mindset, and competence escape along the tortuous way. And on Benghazi, the most controversial issue, there is interesting material indeed, both what is said and what is not said, that should provide interesting leads for congressional investigators to explore.
For example, Hard Choices fails to mention that, when all U.S. diplomats were evacuated from Libya in late February 2011 as opposition to Qaddafi grew, State had to rent a Greek ferry because no U.S. military assets were available in the Mediterranean region, a revelation that would startle most Americans. Fortunately, that evacuation was in a relatively “permissive” environment. But the inescapable reality, in Libya and throughout the Middle East, was that a need for “non-permissive evacuations” (essentially, departing in the midst of active hostilities) in the near future was entirely foreseeable. Yet no one in Obama’s administration learned the lesson of the Greek ferry boat, or took steps to avoid a potential catastrophe.
Evaluating security circumstances in tumultuous countries and regions involves judgments about international politics as much as (or more than) “expert” knowledge about the thicknesses of blast walls, one of Hillary’s favorite dodges during her book tour. The U.S. political imperative for Obama, however, was his utterly inaccurate claim that terrorism globally was on the decline, and that Libya post-Qaddafi was a success story for his “lead from behind” foreign policy. In fact, as has been typical throughout his presidency, Obama turned away from the irritating distraction of Libya and returned to his real priority of “fundamentally transforming” America, as he had promised in 2008.
Hillary’s central defense regarding Benghazi and its aftermath is “the fog of war,” where information is “hard to come by and conflicting and incomplete,” especially far away in Washington, and that “the fog persisted for so long.” There are two answers to this. First, great leaders are those who pierce through the fog of war, see what their colleagues fail to see, and act decisively and correctly even in conditions of high uncertainty and risk. Not Hillary Clinton.
Second, it was not nearly so foggy as she recalls. No officials, U.S. or Libyan, in Benghazi or Tripoli, had any doubt that terrorists had struck our Benghazi compound. There was no need to query CIA intelligence analysts at CIA headquarters in Virginia, just as far from Libya as Hillary’s State Department. Telephone calls back to Washington from the moment of the attack were uniform in their reporting. Clinton herself says that Ambassador Christopher Stephens retired for the evening at 9 p.m., when it was quiet, and that the attack began 40 minutes later. How many people start demonstrations after 9 p.m. that turn into armed attacks within 40 minutes?
Moreover, Clinton is silent on what she did in the hours after first learning about the Cairo demonstrations that breached our embassy’s security defenses, sometime in the morning of September 11, Washington time. She says merely that she was “closely monitoring” reports from Embassy Cairo. Why, on September 11 of all days, did she not immediately order a region-wide security assessment and put everyone on alert throughout the State and Defense Departments, pressing for military assets to be moved toward the region generally if not specifically toward Libya?
In addition, Hard Choices still provides no satisfactory answer to the question of why and when, on that night, Hillary left her office on State’s seventh floor to go home. Certainly the times of several meetings in her office she refers to can be established, and State’s diplomatic-security bureau will have a precise record of when she left the Department. Since Hillary won’t tell us that time, the House select committee on Benghazi should. It is simply unacceptable for her to say that telecommuting during a crisis was legitimate because she had secure communications facilities at home. Physical presence on State’s seventh floor in the midst of a crisis, as the commander “on the bridge,” is incalculable in its effects on the Department’s personnel and operations worldwide. Remaining on the seventh floor reinforces the awareness that lives are at risk. The importance of being with others also working on the issue, face-to-face communications, and the sense of urgency and adrenaline that come from working late into the night to save people in mortal peril cannot be underestimated. Other secretaries have stayed at their desks through the night in far less dramatic or dangerous circumstances.
Clinton does say that her 10:00 p.m. telephone call with Obama, apparently her only contact with him all day, was from her home. And there is no claim that she ever spoke with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. This is stunning. I have worked for six secretaries of state, very different in background, style, and demeanor. I am convinced none of them would have gone home that evening. But Hillary did.
Tellingly, Clinton writes not a word about the post-attack efforts to find and eliminate the terrorist attackers, or even to arrest them under the Obama paradigm that terrorism is merely a law-enforcement matter. True, most of the post-attack chronology occurred after she left State, but similar circumstances didn’t deter her from writing about Syria’s 2013 use of chemical weapons, or about recent nuclear negotiations with Iran. So the absence of any substance on post-attack policy is noticeable, and may be another sign of where she intends to preserve distance from Obama. One thing is certain: Benghazi is still an issue, despite her best efforts to put it behind her.
Historians will find little of interest in Hard Choices, readers will choke trying to get through it, and the publisher may well regret Hillary’s $14 million advance. But the Clinton machine will simply shrug and say, “On to Iowa and New Hampshire.” The real question is whether they will get away with it.
– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Surrender Is Not an Option.