Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton; drawing by John Springs

The memoirs of Hillary Clinton have to be viewed, like their author, as a work in progress. Volume one carried her all the way from her days as a Goldwater girl in Park Ridge, Illinois, to her years as a political lightning rod in the Clinton White House, then finally to the United States Senate, which was never going to be her last stop.* Volume two, picking up the story at the end of her 2008 presidential campaign, recounts her four years at the State Department as what she accurately enough but a tad vaingloriously calls “the chief diplomat of the most powerful nation on earth.”

Taken together, the two volumes add up to nearly 1,200 pages, and a third can hardly be ruled out. Passages toward the end of the latest, on building the middle class at home and abroad and restoring the American dream for the twenty-first century, read like early drafts for an acceptance speech at the next Democratic convention. Just possibly, by the time that third volume is written, the first African-American president will have long since given way to the first woman to hold the office; and Hillary and Bill will have spent more time in the White House than Eleanor and Franklin.

If it comes to that, Hard Choices won’t be the reason. The book landed with a thud. It’s a stiff-jointed, careful performance, assembled by a “book team” of former and present aides from briefing papers, old speeches, town hall transcripts, and interviews. What we get are the highly edited reflections of a prospective candidate: part résumé, designed to reveal the depth of her immersion in global affairs and the extent of her familiarity with the world’s great and near great, scores of them (from the Empress of Japan to His All Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, to Bono); part rampart, designed not to reveal too much.

Here and there, maybe every eighty pages, it’s flecked with stabs at wry humor, mostly about her wardrobe and hair. (“How many times, as Senator from New York, did I go on David Letterman’s show to deliver a pantsuit joke?” she asks.) Here and there also, flashes of real feeling briefly light up dry recitals of yet another trip, another itinerary. “That drove me crazy,” Clinton exclaims over her discovery that there were no schools in a vast Congolese refugee camp she visited. A “senior administration official” invites a blast from the secretary by posing a question about the wound that could be inflicted on Pakistan’s sense of national honor by a raid on Osama bin Laden’s presumed hideout. “What about our national honor?” the exasperated Clinton shoots back. The senior official—unnamed, of course—is left to absorb this notice that there may not be a place for him (or her) in the next Clinton administration.

This edgy, tough Hillary often stays home in Hard Choices. Her other persona, the exceptionally diligent chief diplomat, escorts us on a literal tour d’horizon through many of the 112 nations she visited while foreign policy was largely being shaped in the White House by the man who defeated her. Republican campaign hirelings engaged in what’s called opposition research are likely to read these pages more avidly than casual Clinton adherents who may have difficulty getting past clunky, cursory accounts of how she pulled off a thaw in relations with New Zealand or spoke up for democracy in Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Kosovo. The book has few revelations, let alone pleasures. Its gazetteer notes compete with one another for lameness. (The Sinai is “famous for its role in the Bible.” Lahore is “full of fantastic Mogul architecture.” Copenhagen is “a picturesque city, full of cobblestoned streets.”)

Still, there’s more here than impressions gathered from a motorcade. This installment of Clinton’s memoirs is strewn with clues to the way the odds-makers’ favorite for next president thinks about the world and our place in it. Fond as she is of proclaiming “new eras” and “new beginnings,” little in her approach reflects new thinking.

Having it both ways, she describes herself as neither an idealist nor a realist in foreign policy but an “idealistic realist,” which is to say a “hybrid” (her word). On the evidence here, Hillary Clinton belongs to the Yes…but school on foreign policy whose basic premise boils down to this: Yes, our interventions in other countries don’t always or often work out the way we mean them to, but we have to get involved, have to uphold the leadership role history has assigned us, for we are the “indispensable nation.” That self-glorifying slogan, usually attributed to Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s second secretary of state, rolls easily off her lips: “Everything that I have done and seen has convinced me that America remains the ‘indispensable nation.’” No opponent will ever get away with accusing her of not embracing the doctrine of American exceptionalism, a civil religion to which every recent president, including Barack Obama, has had to pay homage.


On a swing through North Africa, confronted by a question from a Tunisian lawyer who asks whether she understands why her country is so mistrusted by young people aspiring to democracy, given its compromises with corrupt autocrats who abuse human rights, Clinton gives the Yes…but response. “Yes,” it’s true, she concedes, “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I think if you look at the entire historical record, the entire historical record shows we’ve been on the side of freedom, we’ve been on the side of human rights.”

Not to the Tunisian lawyer but in an aside to her readers, almost as if she’s letting them in on a secret, she also says: “America will always do what it takes to keep our people safe and advance our core interests. Sometimes that means working with partners with whom we have deep disagreements.” It’s a proposition she illustrates by conceding that American values were bent in our dependence on the then president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh: “He was corrupt and autocratic, but he was also committed to fighting al Qaeda and keeping his fractious country together.” He’s our man in Sanaa, at least until we drop him.

She writes of “actual, real-world trade-offs” and acknowledges: “There are always choices we regret, consequences we do not foresee, and alternate paths we wish we had taken.” For instance, in Iran (“a classic Cold War move,” she calls the 1953 coup there), Indochina (Laos paid “a terrible price”), Chile (“a dark chapter”), and Iraq. She ticks off each as blemishes on our sterling record but doesn’t see a pattern. Her hardheaded credo boils down to this: “Making policy is a balancing act. Hopefully we get it more right than wrong.”

The hard choice she regrets most keenly is her vote in the Senate in 2002 authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq. She says she took too long to acknowledge that it was a mistake, held out too long “against using the word mistake” during the 2008 primary season. Indirectly, she attributes her defeat to that vote, referring to Obama as “a President who had been elected in part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq and his pledge to end it.”

She also writes about her 2007 vote against the “surge” in Iraq that Bush promoted on the advice of General David Petraeus. But we have to turn to Duty, the recent memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who isn’t running for anything, to find her admission to Obama that the vote had more to do with her need not to be wrong-footed by him in the Iowa caucuses than her real thoughts about Iraq. Politics aside, it seems, she could have supported it. Gates then has the president indicating “vaguely” that the same could have been true of him. As a peace candidate, Gates infers, Obama couldn’t support a strategy for war.

A cold warrior of the old school who spent most of his career in the CIA, Gates harrumphs: “To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.” As a moment of truth viewed in retrospect with a measure of candor, it might also be called refreshing.

An earnest-sounding Clinton leads us to believe her conclusions about hard choices have been hard-won. When choices on war and peace are made at the highest level, she writes, it’s necessary to search for “the unintended consequences of every decision.” She says she vowed to do this “with more experience, wisdom, skepticism, and humility.” How this vow played out in strategy sessions in the White House situation room, when she was consulted on major decisions, tells a lot about her instincts and what they say, or imply, about any differences she may have had with the instinctively prudent Barack Obama. By the standards of recent American statecraft, he’s more unconventional, more inclined for better or worse to question the predictable options and the supposedly tried-and-true assumptions behind them.

Faced with a thorny choice—on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Libya—her own instinct is usually to act in furtherance of America’s “global leadership” role, not abstain. On Afghanistan, for instance, she supports Obama’s 2009 decision to send in a “surge” of 30,000 more troops but wishes he hadn’t capped the number so firmly or publicly committed himself to their withdrawal by the end of this year. But when the Arab Spring sweeps into Cairo’s Tahir Square she’s understandably confounded. It’s Yes…but time again. Mubarak may have been “a heavy-handed autocrat who presided over a corrupt and calcified regime,” but he was “a longtime partner” who “supported peace and cooperation with Israel and hunted terrorists.” Here she advances the best (at least, the normative) thinking of State Department professionals who worry about “other partners” (synonymous with other autocrats) who might “lose trust and confidence in their relationships with us” if we pushed this “key strategic ally” out.


The argument is “unpopular in some quarters of the White House.” This is Clinton’s recurrent narrative trope for a situation in which she finds herself out of sync with the president. In such circumstances, his residence is more likely to be named than he is. Over time, as she explains it, he has evolved in her mind from opponent to partner to the even more exalted rank of personal friend. Of course, he’s also president. She not only writes of their “shared agenda,” but touchingly describes “a lovely, quiet moment” shared in a Cairo mosque, followed by similar stolen moments in a Buddhist temple in Bangkok and the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon. So comfortable have they become in one another’s company that he doesn’t hesitate to nudge her aside at an international summit to whisper, “You’ve got something in your teeth.”

Strains with the disembodied “White House” are frequently ascribed to “younger White House aides” who are invariably nameless. The president is “swayed” when they appeal to his “idealism,” according to the self-described “idealistic realist” who has—at least in this retrospective, inevitably self-serving rendition—a more nuanced view of the forces at work, of the staying power of the pro-democracy demonstrators; still, Obama calls on Mubarak to step down.

When a retired former ambassador to Egypt voices an apparently dissenting view about Mubarak after visiting him on behalf of Clinton, Obama phones his secretary of state to complain about “mixed messages.” Clinton explains: “That’s a diplomatic way of saying he took me to the woodshed.”

A longer-lasting, more serious strain was over the role of Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s choice to oversee diplomatic strategy and tactics in the conflict- ridden region known in State Department jargon as Af-Pak. The freewheeling Holbrooke, credited with ending the war in Bosnia in 1995, never succeeded in getting on the same wavelength as the president (and vice versa). The harder he pushed, the more he tried Obama’s patience. Soon the source of power known as the White House was finding ways to trim his mandate and circumvent him. Increasingly unveiled messages were sent to Clinton to ditch him. She went to Obama to save Holbrooke’s job but it’s not clear in this retelling how forcefully she supported the game plan he was seeking to advance, or indeed what the game plan was beyond drawing the Taliban into a negotiation and sponsoring some kind of détente between the Pakistani military and the government in Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai was convinced that Holbrooke was scheming to undermine him, she says. Clinton considered Karzai “a linchpin of our mission in Afghanistan.” She doesn’t say her chief representative agreed. They didn’t agree on everything. She thought more troops were needed; he didn’t. One time in Pakistan, she tells us, this self-propelled “force of nature” pursued the secretary of state into a ladies’ restroom to continue making a point.

The standoff over the envoy’s role ended in December 2011 with his collapse in Clinton’s office with a torn aorta and death two days later. Our author doesn’t say what thoughts ran through her mind as she listened to Obama’s somewhat wooden, not much more than adequate eulogy at the memorial service at the Kennedy Center.

Built to thwart opposition researchers scrounging for vulnerabilities, Hard Choices has more pages on Libya than China, including a whole chapter on Benghazi and the 2012 attack there on the US consulate in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died. House Republicans and Fox News have kept up a clamor on Benghazi ever since in hopes of wounding a presumptive nominee with no discernable challenger in the ranks of her own party. A feisty Clinton shows in these pages that she’s ready for them.

In October 2011, she landed in Tripoli and declared, “I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Libya.” It was a typical Hillary moment. “Proud” is a favorite word, used to congratulate her audience as well as herself, to bask in a sense of shared accomplishment. But now that Libya has descended into anarchy, with the militias that arose with Western (and Arab) backing to oust Muammar Qaddafi carrying on as local mafias and fighting among themselves, how are we to weigh that accomplishment, that pride? Is this unraveling any business of the United States and its allies? Having intervened once to prevent what was branded a “humanitarian catastrophe,” do we have any residual interest or responsibility there, let alone in Afghanistan or Iraq where, as it happens, we’ve decided we have a new “humanitarian catastrophe” on our hands? So severe was this latest crisis, brought on by the rise of ISIS, that US aircraft had to be sent in for the first time in more than two years to halt the jihadist advance, raising the question: How many times, in how many places, can we reintervene?

From where we now sit, Clinton’s day in Tripoli seems faintly reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” show on a carrier flight deck. More recently, Clinton was off on her book tour when, taking no chances, the snake-bitten State Department transferred its Libya personnel to a temporary station in Tunisia. “When America is absent, extremism takes root,” she warns in her Benghazi chapter. Retreat, she asserts, is “just not in our country’s DNA.” So what would she do now? The best wisdom we can draw from these pages is the self-evident observation that Libya might face “very difficult challenges translating the hopes of a revolution into a free, secure, and prosperous future.” It seems a fair translation to say that that amounts, in present circumstances, to “Good luck, Libya.”

President Obama, more willing to focus on bad results, to try to draw lessons from them, recently told Thomas Friedman in an interview that the time to move on is emphatically not the moment “when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’” That’s when “there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions.” The United States and its allies “under-estimated” what would be needed in Libya, he said.

At this point, the discussion threatens to turn circular. Isn’t it possible, even likely, that we wouldn’t have intervened at all if we’d allowed ourselves a more realistic estimate, understood from the start that intervening to the extent we did meant taking on the burden of trying to rebuild a ferociously divided Libya? Wasn’t that one of the many lessons of Iraq?

“Challenges” is another favorite Clinton word. And they are everywhere demanding a response, none more so than Syria. In these pages, she’s respectful of Obama’s deliberative approach but eagerly backs a plan drawn up by David Petraeus, by then heading the CIA, for arming and training certifiably “moderate” Syrian rebels. A cautious Obama asks for “examples of instances when the United States had backed an insurgency that could be considered a success.” No one, it seems, has a ready answer. The idea of success has to be redefined. It’s not to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Obama is told; it’s to take the initiative away from Qatar and Saudia Arabia, which are “dumping weapons into the country,” in order to have “a partner on the ground we could work with.” It was, Clinton writes, “the least bad option among many even worse alternatives.” Leon Panetta, Gates’s successor at the Pentagon, is on her side. “He knew from his own time leading the CIA what our intelligence operatives could do.”

“Some in the White House” are skeptical. They doubt that a credible “moderate” force can be created. It may not be irrelevant that Obama was in the midst of his reelection campaign. In any case, he wasn’t persuaded. “He had promised me,” she writes, “that I would always get a fair hearing. And I always did. In this case, my position did not prevail.”

In her memoir, she presents the choice as a close call, one on which reasonable people could differ. Now, with the launch of her second run for the presidency presumably drawing near and Obama’s poll numbers in the dumps, she views it as having been a no-brainer. “The failure to build up a credible fighting force,” she recently told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, left “a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” The “least bad option” was always the obvious one to grasp. The former secretary speaks again in the voice of the senator who was proud to serve on the Armed Service Committee, who cultivated top generals, showing that a woman commander in chief could be trusted to command.

She thus aligns herself, at least in one interview, with the commentators for whom Obama’s decision to reject “the least bad option” on Syria stood as proof of his weakness, America’s decline. Now that we see ISIS fighting in Iraq with American weapons seized in armories abandoned by forces we trained, the argument has become muddled. Possibly it takes more strength for a president to reject military intervention when the national security establishment lines up behind it than to give the order everyone is expecting. What seems pretty clear is that Hillary Clinton, experienced and knowledgeable as she now is, wouldn’t be such a president. Like Panetta, she knows what our intelligence operatives can do.

The rollout of Hard Choices hasn’t been helped by the summer’s depressing news feeds from around the world. Vladimir Putin’s reckless, thumb-in-your eye forays in eastern Ukraine began early enough for Clinton to work in a mention of his seizure of Crimea. This suggests that she may have recast other parts of her chapter on Russia, which now is appropriately downbeat. There had been high hopes of a new relationship with Russia, nicknamed “the reset” when Obama reached the White House in 2009. Clinton, who early on staged the jokey presentation of a gift-wrapped “reset button” to her Russian counterpart, now tells us she had only “modest expectations” herself. Leaving office, she advised Obama in what was presumably a highly classified memo that Putin was on a “negative trajectory” and it was now time to hit the “pause button,” to take a tougher line. This was another of those occasions when “not everyone at the White House agreed.” Obama accepted an invitation to a Moscow summit she’d advised him to skip. Months later he “began taking a harder line with Putin” and finally did back out of the Moscow visit. Now it’s important for her to have us (and those pesky opposition researchers) know that she was never taken in, even if that means leaving an impression that the president was a little soft.

Her care in distinguishing her inclinations from Obama’s is even more conspicuous in her pages on the Israelis and Palestinians. As might perhaps be expected of a former senator from New York, she can’t find it in herself to scold Israel over its occupation of the West Bank; in fact, she never uses the word “occupation.” She recognizes the expanding settlements as a political problem, and she pressed hard while in office for a limited construction “freeze,” but says nothing to suggest that the problems posed by existing settlements or the actual conditions on the West Bank—the suffocating overlay of security checks, road blocks, army patrols—offend her sense of fairness or human rights. Of course, like all secretaries of state of the last half-century, she doesn’t mention that Israel never signed the nuclear nonproliferation pact, the treaty we’re rightly pressing Iran to observe. First she says that she feels “personally invested in Israel’s security and success,” then that she’s “someone who cares deeply about Israel’s security and future.”

We get the point. Still, it’s instructive to see how carefully she distances herself from Obama in recounting his difficulties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two men repeatedly go to the edge of confrontation while she and the Israeli leader are able to work together as “partners and friends.”

“I learned that Bibi would fight if he felt he was being cornered, but if you connected with him as a friend, there was a chance that you could get something done together.” Someone who was “friending” long before the invention of Facebook, she believes in “building relationships and understanding how and when to use them.” What she gets out of this one is an agreement to extend the freeze on settlement construction for ninety days, except in East Jerusalem, at the cost of an additional $3 billion in military aid. Earlier, when Joe Biden was greeted on a visit to Israel with an announcement of new Jewish construction in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, a “furious” Obama instructed her to tell Netanyahu that he viewed the provocation “as a personal insult to him, the Vice President, and the United States.” Clinton puts the words in quotes so we understand that they’re the president’s. She delivers the blast but almost seems to excuse herself. “I didn’t like playing bad cop,” she writes, “but it was part of the job.”

Late in 2012, with her time in office running down, she persuades the president to let her fly to the Middle East to see if she can head off a threatened Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. An air campaign is already underway in retaliation for rockets fired into Israel by Hamas. Civilian casualties are rising. “There was no substitute for American leadership,” she argued. She even succeeds in lining up Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt who’ll soon be on his way to jail. A cease-fire is struck, thanks to her “diplomatic intervention.” Now in the summer of 2014, less than two years later, her account of this achievement makes sour reading (no fault of Clinton’s, obviously). Hamas and Israel have been at it again. Another “intervention” is required. Clinton’s successor flies in and out of Cairo, doing what he can through the good offices of Hosni Mubarak’s real successor, Egypt’s latest military ruler.

Florida’s Marco Rubio, twenty-four years her junior, a first-term senator hoping to replicate Obama’s 2008 run, recently put Hillary Clinton down as a “twentieth century candidate.” She could see this line of attack on her longevity in politics and her age—sixty-nine on Election Day 2016—coming. Having been there in 1992 as well as 2008, she doesn’t need to be told that a new face often trumps a long résumé. So she stakes out positions on the near side of the generational line. The last pages of her memoir are crammed with up-to-the-minute references not only to her struggles on behalf of women but also (for eight of those pages) efforts as secretary to inscribe the fraught subject of LGBT rights on the international agenda.

She mentions, too, a push to spread democratic values by offering technological support and smart phones to networking young dissidents around the globe. Of course, if they then rise up against rulers who have been important strategic partners, she could face even more hard choices.