Ahead of 2016, Hillary Clinton aims to lay bare her ‘Hard Choices’

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent June 7

Are you ready for Hillary? If not, this is a week to turn off the television, put aside your morning paper, get off the Internet, never look at your Twitter feed, avoid Facebook and stay out of bookstores.

Even then you probably won’t be able to avoid the former secretary of state/senator/first lady. On Tuesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices,” will be published amid a flurry of publicity worthy of, well, the opening of a major presidential campaign.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Clinton’s book, copies of which were purchased by The Washington Post at bookstores in two cities, is a methodical march through the challenges she encountered as the nation’s top diplomat. Beyond the diplomacy, it includes lighter moments and self-deprecating asides as she seeks to project both a deep understanding of the world and a warm, human side to her personality.

Compared with her book “Living History,” published in 2003, “Hard Choices” is a more interesting read, enriched not simply by her nearly million miles of international travel to 112 countries but more by her accounts of scores of conversations with world leaders as the administration grappled with one challenge after another. Through nearly 600 pages, she comes across less a visionary and more a practical-minded problem solver.

In Clinton’s description, virtually every foreign policy problem presents hard choices: the intractable Middle East, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Libya, the Arab Spring and on and on. And if she believes that in most cases the administration tried to pursue the right course, there are enough chapters that end with issues unresolved or problems even worse today than at the beginning of the administration to raise questions about what should have been done instead.

“Hard Choices” is no tell-all by a former official looking to settle scores. She writes that she did not always agree with President Obama or others in what was originally described as a modern day “Team of Rivals.” “Some of those times you’ll read about in this book,” she writes, “but others will remain private to honor the cone of confidentiality that should exist between a president and his secretary of State, especially while he is still in office.”

The book is a careful document designed to preserve, perhaps burnish, future possibilities. The disagreements she outlines are described in collegial terms — although she does mention a “shouting match” with then-CIA Director Leon Panetta over a drone strike. In some cases, she suggests that she had differences with White House officials on policies that ultimately went awry. She says she had reservations, for example, about taking a hard-line stance with Israel over new settlements as Obama initially did.

In her book, Clinton addresses her possible candidacy with a teasing line. “Will I run for president in 2016?” she writes. “The answer is, I haven’t decided yet.” Yet the last few chapters shift from foreign policy to domestic issues with which a future president will have to grapple. The book ends with this: “The time for another hard choice will come soon enough.” In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone with a Clinton connection who does not believe she will be a candidate.

A long battle lost

The book opens at a low moment in Clinton’s life, when she has lost, finally, the long and difficult nomination battle to Obama in June 2008. “Why on earth was I lying on the backseat of a blue minivan with tinted windows?” she asks. She was on her way to a secret meeting with Obama, their first face-to-face encounter since the nomination had been decided. She said it was like “two awkward teenagers on a first date.”

She knew she was prepared to do what she could to help Obama win the presidency but wanted to raise “some unpleasant moments” from the primary contests, from charges of racism leveled against her husband, former president Bill Clinton, that she describes as “preposterous,” to moments of sexism that arose in the heat of the fight.

Out of this meeting came other conversations that culminated in the offer to become secretary of state. Clinton says she was “floored” (although an adviser had earlier predicted it was coming) and turned Obama down. She continued to decline the offer until, she says, it was clear Obama would not take “no” for an answer.

Clinton’s first trip as secretary was to Asia, a symbolic move meant to highlight the new administration’s effort to reorient U.S. foreign policy — an effort that has been frustrated repeatedly by crises that have erupted elsewhere.

While policymaking involves making choices, Clinton’s description of Asia policy offers the view that sometimes the easiest choice is all the choices. She describes three paths for dealing with Asia: broadening the U.S. relationship with China, strengthening alliances with others in the region as a counterbalance to China, or elevating multilateral organizations in the region. “I decided that the smart power choice was to meld all three approaches,” she writes.

One passage that has gotten early attention deals with her vote for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, an act that created an opening for candidate Obama and contributed to her defeat.

She says she, like many other senators, came to regret the vote she cast. “I thought I had acted in good faith,” she writes. “And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong.” She also says she “should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible,” which many were urging her to do during the 2008 campaign. It has taken almost seven more years for her to do so.

Clinton is less willing to say she was wrong to oppose the troop surge in Iraq authorized by George W. Bush in early 2007. Instead, she writes that then-Gen. David Petraeus eventually executed a strategy as part of the troop surge that was similar to one she had urged upon him. That and what was called the “Sunni Awakening” “profoundly shifted the trajectory of the war” in Iraq.

She recounts the administration debate over a troop surge in Afghanistan that culminated in late 2009 with the president’s decision to send an additional 30,000 soldiers there. As was known at the time, she and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates supported a troop surge, while Vice President Biden opposed it.

Clinton notes, however, that she disagreed when the president announced that U.S. troops would begin coming home 18 months after the deployments were ordered. She said it was “a starker deadline than I had hoped for.” What’s not clear is whether she ever opposed this during internal debates.

She favored the raid that killed Osama bin Laden when some others — Gates and to some extent Biden — were skeptical. “I respected Bob’s and Joe’s concerns about the risks of a raid, but I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success,” Clinton writes.

Chapters about Russia and the Middle East underscore how administration policies fell far short of their goals.

Clinton recounts with some humor the botched effort to present the Russian foreign minister with a reset button at the beginning of the administration. But she writes harshly about Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying “hard men present hard choices,” none more so than him. She portrays herself as clear-eyed in her private communications to Obama, recalling a June 2012 memo in which she urged Obama to “bargain hard” at an upcoming face-to-face meeting with the Russian president, because Putin will “give no gifts.”

As she left the State Department early in 2013, she warned Obama of “difficult days” ahead with the Russians. “Not everyone at the White House agreed with my relatively harsh analysis,” she writes, although she doesn’t say who.

On the Middle East, Clinton portrays herself as a longtime friend of Israel but someone who also was an “early voice” for Palestinian statehood. She disagreed with Obama and then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel on a demand that Israel halt all new settlement construction. “I was worried that we would be locking ourselves into a confrontation we didn’t need,” she writes.

Clinton breaks no new ground in her chapter, revealed earlier by Politico, on Benghazi, an issue that she will likely have to deal with as a new House committee gears up for more hearings. She accuses critics of trying to exploit a tragedy for political gain and writes, “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.”

The Arab Spring put Clinton at odds with some officials. By her own account, she was cautious about advocating a position that strongly sided with the protesters in Cairo.

She writes that “ some of President Obama’s aides in the White House were swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment.” She warned that if then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell, things might work out in 25 years but the period in between “will be quite rocky for the Egyptian people, for the region and for us.”

Obama upbraided her after retired diplomat Frank Wisner, who had been dispatched to talk to Mubarak, later offered a public assessment of the situation that differed from the administration’s positions at the time. She writes that Obama called to express his displeasure with the “mixed signals” being sent. “That’s a diplomatic way of saying he took me to the woodshed.”

She described unnamed White House aides as nervous during the episode involving Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who had escaped house arrest and was seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy. “Some of the president’s aides worried that we were about to destroy America’s relationship with China. But no one was prepared to be responsible for leaving Chen to his fate by telling us to stand down.”

Clinton calls Syria a “wicked problem,” and it is another area where she differed with the president. Other accounts have described a heated debate inside the administration over beginning to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Clinton offers a more-sanitized version: “Some in the White House were skeptical.” The ultimate decision not to do so was Obama’s. “No one likes to lose a debate, including me,” she writes.

Throughout the book, Clinton offers personal asides and anecdotes. She juggles wedding arrangements with her daughter, Chelsea, while working abroad.

Recounting her experiences in Burma, she tells of taking off her shoes to visit an ancient Buddhist temple and journalists describing her toenail polish as “sexy siren red.”

She also relates a funny moment with Obama, who pulled her aside during a meeting in Prague. She assumed it was to tell her something sensitive. He whispered in her ear, “You’ve got something in your teeth.” She writes that it was something “only a friend would say, and a sign that we were going to have each other’s backs.”

Many questions to answer

Reviews of Clinton’s book will cascade in the coming days. John Dickerson of Slate and CBS News wrote Friday that “this is not a book from someone who has nothing to lose,” describing it as “the low-salt, low-fat, low-calorie offering with vanilla pudding as the dessert.”

The book tour provides Clinton another forum to promote herself as ready for the presidency without being a formal candidate. But given the widespread belief that she will run, she will open herself up to questions about past and future hard choices.

There are many for Clinton to answer over the next few weeks, on policies toward Russia, Syria, the Middle East; on what she thinks about the president’s recent foreign policy speech that was criticized from the right and the left; on whether the policies of her husband are best to deal with the problems of today.

These would be relevant even if she were not considering a campaign for president. But they are especially pertinent now, given that in recent weeks she has sounded more and more like someone ready to run.

Last Monday, she gave a speech in Denver that ended with a rousing peroration in which she asked the audience to “join me in making some hard choices for America.” Last month in Washington, she delivered a pointed economic policy speech.

Meanwhile the apparatus for a campaign continues to build. The political action committee Ready for Hillary was started as a vehicle to encourage Clinton to run for president. Now it is a semi­official organization to build the grass-roots infrastructure her 2008 campaign lacked.

Unless something changes, Democrats could be heading toward the least competitive open nomination contest in memory. The incentive for the normally cautious Clinton may be to try to stay above the fray as long as possible. Her book tour offers an early opportunity to talk even more candidly about mistakes and second thoughts, how they have shaped the way she now sees problems and a description of what hard choices she is ready to make for the country.

Anne Gearan, Karen DeYoung, Lori Montgomery, Rosalind Helderman, Jaime Fuller, Katie Zezima, Philip Bump, Juliet Eilperin and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.

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