Big Ideas for a New President

Seven years have passed since the Clinton administration left office. It’s election year, and the prospects look good for a Democratic—perhaps even a Clinton—comeback. Those who served under Bill Clinton, whether or not they hope to be back in office themselves, can reasonably hope that the public will be interested to hear from them again: not as memoirists this time—those with salable memoirs have long since published them—but as elder statespersons, offering wisdom distilled from their experience.

So here are three books written by people who, at different levels, were involved in making foreign policy under the president who may or may not soon be referred to as “Clinton 42.” Madeleine Albright served him in his first term as ambassador to the UN, and in his second as secretary of state. Strobe Talbott, starting as ambassador-at-large for Russia and the former Soviet Union, was soon promoted to deputy secretary of state, which he remained until 2001. Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen, from a younger generation, shared a “converted broom closet in the West Wing,” which they also refer to as “the frenetic guts of America’s foreign policy machine,” in the closing years of the second term—when, as they recall fondly, “Clinton was greeted by mobs of cheering crowds everywhere he went.”

All three books are clearly aimed at influencing the next administration, while reminding it (and the public) of the authors’ existence. This does not necessarily mean that all of them expect or even want to return to office (though in the case of Hachigian and Sutphen it seems likely that the thought has crossed their minds). It clearly does mean that they all believe what they have to say to be of more than merely academic interest.

Albright’s work, from the title onward, is the most explicitly didactic. She asks the reader to imagine her addressing it to the successful candidate as a “MEMORANDUM (personal and confidential)” on “Election Night, 2008.” The artificiality of this device is a little too obvious to be effective, since Albright, writing in 2007, does not know any more than we do who the successful candidate will be. The reader should be grateful, however, that a judicious editor has removed such folksy touches as “A Word (If I Might) Before We Begin”—the title of the prologue in the uncorrected proof sent to reviewers.

The first half of the book, written largely in this tone of cracker-barrel philosophy, is concerned essentially with “process”: it purports to warn the incoming president of the pitfalls lying in wait for her, or him, in the thickets of the Washingtonian jungle. A few of these tips might actually be useful—the warning against announcing “a bold plan for a presidency’s first hundred days,” for instance; the suggestion of a “comprehensive policy review” as a way of allowing unwise promises to fade from memory; or the reminder that, if foreign diplomats insist on dealing directly with the White House, it is because they think the president more likely to compromise than…

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