The Hillary Paradox

How the former secretary of state pulls off being softer than soft and harder than hard.


It’s Hillary Week! The former secretary of state/senator/first lady has published a memoir with the startling title Hard Choices. (See Time‘s "Political Memoir Title Generator" for your very own clichéd memoir title.) Clinton has presided over a book signing, where crews from Fox trawled for fresh material to renew an old hate affair. She has played Q&A patty-cake at the Council on Foreign Relations. And she has offered pundits (like me) a one-week timeout from real-life calamities in order to reassess her legacy.

First out of the box was the New York Times Nicholas Kristof, who argued that Clinton "vastly expanded the diplomatic agenda" to include women’s issues and economic development as well as "government-to-people relations and people-to-people ties." Clinton herself often said that such "soft" issues matter because they advance America’s "hard" interests.

Well, no doubt they do, and American diplomats have increasingly accepted them as part of their job. But they are a modest part. Clinton’s jawboning on women’s rights may have given heart to Afghan women, as she says it did; but if the Afghanistan the United States is now leaving behind cannot defend itself from the misogynistic Taliban, then who really cares? The policy trumps the rhetoric — a lesson that President Barack Obama has had to learn as well. If Clinton matters because she expanded the agenda, then she didn’t matter all that much.

Perhaps, however, she matters for other reasons. Clinton herself must think so, because Hard Choices has been constructed with an eye to re-branding. The first 500 pages recount the principal crises of her tenure; the soft stuff is relegated to the back. What’s more, Clinton begins with Asia, which allows her to begin with the "pivot" of which she was the prime mover, and then to tell the story of how she rescued the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng without fatally damaging the "strategic dialogue" with China that she had put in motion. Henry Kissinger could not have carried out this balancing act more deftly than Clinton did — and he probably would have thrown Chen to the wolves.

The Hillary Clinton whom Hillary Clinton wishes the reader, and perhaps the future voter, to see is clear-eyed, tough-minded, unambiguous about national interests — more Sandy Berger than Tony Lake, more Zbigniew Brzezinski than Cy Vance. In her own recounting, she often distinguishes herself from an unspecified "those" who fall prey to illusions about the likes of Vladimir Putin. She tells the reader that when she stepped down she left behind a memo advising President Barack Obama to hit the "pause button" on Russia — this, of course, was long before Putin sent troops into Crimea.

This conscientious re-positioning takes its place in the ever-evolving Hillary portrait gallery with which Americans have lived for the last two decades. The figure we see before us has elements of both "It Takes a Village Hillary" and "Don’t Cross Me Hillary" — both softer than the soft and harder than the hard. Is that a contradiction? Not, somehow, in her.

I found the single most telling passage in Hard Choices to be Clinton’s discussion of the tumultuous days when crowds in Tahrir Square called for Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak to step down. The former ’60s activist who told her Wellesley graduating class to seek the possibility of "ecstatic experience" now sought to arrange a soft landing for an aging autocrat. She faced off against, in effect, earlier versions of herself. "Like many other young people around the world," she writes, "some of President Obama’s aides in the White House were swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment." The idealists pressed Obama to side openly with the protestors. But Clinton and other elders cautioned Obama against "pushing a longtime partner out the door." The youngsters won that round. Clinton writes that when she met later that year with student leaders in Cairo, she found them naive and feckless. In her remarks at the Council, Clinton said that she had been "appalled" and even got into a "shouting match" with the young heroes of Tahrir Square. 

Clinton might not have been bragging about her smackdown if things hadn’t gone spectacularly wrong in Egypt. But they have, and Obama’s decision to call on Mubarak to step down immediately now looks rash. Those of us who thought that denting our relationships with Middle East allies was a small price to pay in exchange for getting on the right side of history need to reflect that history didn’t go the way we hoped. Events have vindicated Clinton’s sense of caution.

Clinton was more often criticized during her tenure for being too hard than for being too soft — for giving short shrift to human rights in China and democracy promotion around the world. She pushes back against that impression, though not altogether persuasively. She is more convincing when insisting that her judgments were sound. She saw through Putin, she had no illusions about the realities of the Arab Spring, and she rightly feared that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would react badly to demands for a settlement freeze. She was adroit on China and on Iran, where she played a central role in marshaling reluctant states to vote for U.N. sanctions in 2010. And when she endorsed military action for humanitarian ends, history also proved her right — in Libya, where it worked, and in Syria, where the president ignored her advice to train and arm moderate rebels, and now the place has descended into Hell.

That, of course, is what memoirs are for; they all carry the implicit subtitle, "I Was Right." But Hillary Clinton has not just a past but a future, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt her cause if readers left feeling not only that she had been a better secretary of state than they thought but that she might have been a better president than the president has been (though her tone towards Obama is never less than perfectly respectful). He had a grandiose vision, but she had fine-grained knowledge. He was an inspired amateur, she a tough pro.

Is it so? I’m certainly more prepared to believe it now than I would have been a few years ago, when the world seemed less grim. But we should keep in mind what is not in Hard Choices as well as what is. Clinton gives the impression that she was deeply engaged with Israel-Palestine negotiations, but in fact she left the serious work to her envoy, George Mitchell, until September 2010, after which the process collapsed. She did not play the leading role on Afghanistan. Her envoy, Richard Holbrooke, favored a diplomatic surge rather than a military one. She disagreed, and sided with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his generals. Clinton seemed unwilling to question their logic, as Vice President Joe Biden fearlessly did. Neither Biden nor Holbrooke’s plan would have preserved the gains that Afghan women have made, but they still might have either minimized American losses or led to a negotiated solution.

I don’t see where a President Clinton would have made substantively different decisions on large-scale issues than her boss did over the last six years. Obama has been a generally, and increasingly, risk-averse foreign policy leader; his new mantra is, "Don’t do stupid stuff." In Hillary Clinton he had a largely risk-averse secretary of state. (John Kerry has a much keener appetite than either for the diplomatic high wire.) But while Obama’s visionary rhetoric set up expectations that he was bound to disappoint — think of the 2009 Cairo speech — Clinton’s very ea
rthbound habits of thought and language might have better matched America’s will and resources to its goals. She might have done less damage to her own credibility than Obama has.

Obama defeated Clinton in 2008 because he was seen as the breakthrough candidate, and she the status quo. Hard Choices will not make the reader think otherwise. It is, however, a measure of our collective loss of faith about America’s capacity to shape a better world that this now seems like an advantage for Clinton rather than for Obama.      

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