Review by Amb. (ret.) David C. Litt
Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-1476751443, 656 pp., $20.91 (Harcover), $14.99 (Kindle).
This review of Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time at the Department of State, examines the book through the lens of what she chose to do about the Foreign Service and the capabilities of America’s diplomacy. I bypassed the political, personal, and “electoral” aspects of her book that other reviewers have assessed. Instead, I wanted to know: What did the Secretary do during those four years to enhance the ability of her Department to carry out her vision of diplomacy and development as instruments of national power equal to that other “D,” as embodied in her signature Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR)? How might she compare with other secretaries of state in decades past? If there was any “electoral” aspect to my assessment, it would be: How might we expect a President Clinton to transform the institutions of diplomacy and development to advance America’s role in the world?
Mrs. Clinton has long been a strong advocate for a renewed, robust, well-resourced diplomatic service. In her introduction to the 2010 QDDR she noted:
The State Department and USAID have phenomenal employees, from health workers serving in remote villages to Foreign Service personnel posted at bustling embassies to many other staff stationed across the United States. But I quickly learned that we could do more to equip our people to do their best work, spend our resources efficiently, achieve our objectives effectively, and adapt to the demands of a changing world…
Hard Choices examines chapter by chapter her experiences as Secretary of State in managing foreign policy during her tenure. The 656-page book (I chose to read the Kindle version; I can get my free-weight exercises elsewhere) discusses her perspectives on China, the Arab awakening, Iran, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Africa, Latin America, human rights, Russia, Israel-Palestine, and much more. I expected to learn how she led, shaped, managed, criticized, defended, and sought resources for the institutions under her command, namely the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development.
I was in for great disappointment. Mrs. Clinton crafts the memoir as a commander in battle, rather than as State’s CEO. What unfolds is a highly operational, sometimes even tactical narrative of how she dealt with this or that issue — the “hard choices.” The principals in this drama were, for the most part, her handpicked battle staff. A few career Foreign Service officers, at State not USAID, had cameo roles. Most of her subordinate commanders were plucked from outside the government, not from inside the Department of State.
The institutions of American diplomacy and development received only honorable mention – usually in passing – as her foreign policy battles raged on. An Embassy or “Main State” was usually just the location of an event, disembodied from the core narrative. Diplomacy as the day-to-day job of actual career personnel was largely ignored, as if it were some program running in the background. In a few cases, Mrs. Clinton dredged up loaded descriptions of diplomacy such as “the traditional work of negotiating treaties and attending diplomatic conferences” or “old-fashioned shoe-leather diplomacy.” Perhaps overly sensitive on my part, I detected in one or two spots the vestige of the worn canard-describing diplomats as “striped-pants cookie pushers at cocktail parties.” Never mind, this was clearly not the Secretary’s intention.
Nevertheless, what was patently missing, even between the lines, was the fact that Foreign Service personnel have been tirelessly weaving for many decades the multi-colored, integrated fabric of foreign policy in all its dimensions — energy, women’s rights, business, sanctions, investments, science. Since this is exactly what she calls for in the memoir, perhaps her point is that the Department desperately needs enhanced recruitment, resources, and retraining. In fact, early on she does channel some well-known Foreign Service frustrations: “When I became Secretary, the career professionals at State and USAID had been facing shrinking budgets and growing demands, and they were eager for leadership that championed the important work they did.” I regret that she chose not to address in the memoir with greater fervor and detail what she saw as needed institutional improvements.
The protagonists of her memoir were mostly her coterie of hand-selected team members. Her immediate staff, like Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan, played a large role in the shaping and execution of policy, strategy and events. So too did her team of hand-picked substantive issue leaders like FSO Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, the late FSO Richard Holbrooke as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), and the East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) Bureau Assistant Secretary, Kurt Campbell. These officers are the managers of large and effective teams, professionals who have worked for many years the very issues that Mrs. Clinton rightly identified as critical during her tenure. But the memoir recounts the view from the “Forward Operating Base” that Mrs. Clinton and her inner circle ran. Policies sprang from their conclaves; few others had any hand in their development, and no one seemingly had ever proposed such things before.
Of course, this is a memoir, and it belongs to Secretary Clinton. Fair enough. This is about her thought processes and the “hard choices” she had to make as Secretary. We want to know her thoughts, and her analysis of what happened and why. We should not expect to learn what Embassy “X” or Ambassador “Y” did every step of the way to improve any situation. Let them write a book.
The memoir does give us valuable insights into events that she and a few others knew first-hand: barging into the PRC-convoked mini-caucus of key countries — from which the US had been deliberately excluded – on climate change; deciding the fate of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese human rights activist in refuge at Embassy Beijing; or private conversations with Vladimir Putin, Benyamin Netanyahu, or Aung Sung Suu Kyi. Of particular importance to the Foreign Service and American diplomacy is what the memoir recounts of the events of Benghazi, the attack on the US facility, the deaths of America’s public servants, and the crass politicization of the aftermath. In these moments, the memoir shines. She staunchly defends the need for effective risk management, not risk avoidance, in the conduct of diplomacy.
At the end of the day, what emerges from this memoir — written by the person leading America’s diplomatic activities, the champion of, in her words, “the combined force of civilians working together across the U.S. government to practice diplomacy, carry out development projects, and prevent and respond to crises” — is actually an account of a hand-picked insider team making the decisions, without much input from the rest of the career professionals.
This was definitely not the State Department of George Shultz in the Reagan years, who, in a 2005 interview at the University of Virginia, recounted his view of the career Foreign Service versus personal staff:
I’m enough of a managerial-type person to say, Your line organization should be the people who carry the ball operationally, because they’re the people who are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, are subject to being called to testify before the Senate and the House, to be the spokespeople. So that’s the right line. The other people are important and very capable and everything, but they’re staff.
Moreover, Mrs. Clinton seems to assume, wrongly, that the numbers of career professionals needed to implement future diplomacy/development are readily available, or easily found. The previous Administration, save for Secretary Colin Powell, made this mistake, too. Secretary Powell’s approach to the human dimension of diplomacy was unambiguous. According to a 2003 Task Force Report on Colin Powell’s State Department, Powell, in his initial remarks to the personnel of the Department intoned:
‘I am not coming in just to be the foreign policy adviser to the President,… I’m coming in as the leader and the manager of this Department.’ Addressing a Town Hall gathering of employees three days later, he added, ‘I view it as my solemn obligation to make sure that you have all the resources you need to serve the American people… We’re going to start to do things right away… and I think you will see the transformation start to take place. I am only interested in transformations that go down to the depth of the organization… You will start to see changes… I hope as a result of that, the new culture will emerge.’
I had hoped to read some reflection of that kind of commitment, advocacy and action, coursing throughout the memoir of Secretary Clinton, champion of the QDDR and the civilian instruments of national power. Even her account of her own debut in the Department’s lobby missed this opportunity. The memoir chose instead to focus expressively on the inscribed names of the fallen and their contribution to the national interest.
Any future president determined to strengthen America’s international influence through civilian smart power must address the vulnerabilities within the two principal civilian institutions that will implement America’s leadership role, State and USAID. Those hard choices were missing from this memoir.