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‘Hard Choices’: A chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Clinton’s new book

Hillary Rodham Clinton's new book "Hard Choices" is a methodical march through the challenges she encountered as the nation’s secretary of state from 2009-2013. In Clinton’s description, virtually every foreign policy problem presented hard choices: the intractable Middle East, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Libya, the Arab Spring and more. But she also writes about her years as the nation's top diplomat as a "personal journey," both literal (112 countries and nearly 1 million miles) and figurative, taking her "from the painful end of the 2008 campaign to an unexpected partnership and friendship with my former rival Barack Obama."

A team of Post reporters read through the book and picked out chapter-by-chapter highlights. You can jump to a section by clicking below.

Part 1: "A Fresh Start' | Part 2: "Across the Pacific"
Part 3: "War and Peace" | Part 4: "Between Hope and History"
Part 5: "Upheaval" | Part 6: "The Future We Want" | Epilogue


Chapter 1/2008: A Team of Rivals

The book opens with Clinton lying prone on the back seat of a minivan, sneaking out of her Northwest Washington home for a secret meeting with Obama on June 5, 2008, after Obama had sealed up the Democratic presidential nomination.

Over chardonnay at the home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Clinton and Obama have an awkward meeting where Clinton raises "some of the unpleasant moments of the past year," including charges of racism against Bill Clinton that Hillary Clinton calls "preposterous." Obama reassured her that neither he nor his team believed that accusation.

Five days after the election, Hillary and Bill Clinton were out for a walk when Obama called the former president's cellphone. Obama said he wanted to see Clinton, and she assumed it was about how she could help him from her seat in the Senate. A few days later, Obama offered her the State Department job, which she turned down twice before accepting on Nov. 21.

Chapter 2/Foggy Bottom: Smart Power

Clinton writes that she met with outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for dinner at the State Department and consulted with others who held the job. They advised her to "pick a few big issues and own them" and not to try to do everything at once. But that didn't square with how Clinton saw the world. "Neglecting regions and threats could have painful consequences," she writes, vowing to "pay attention to the whole chessboard," particularly Asia.

As she settled into her office on the State Department's seventh floor, guarded by Diplomatic Security Service officers and routinely swept for listening devices, she felt "as though we were working inside a giant safe."


Chapter 3/Asia: The Pivot

Clinton's first trip as secretary was to Asia, and she writes that she meant to "send a message . . . that America was back," pivoting to Asia after years of entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. With China rising as an economic power, Clinton was convinced that the United States needed a different approach to Asia, one that showed a commitment to engage broadly with Asian nations. One major goal: to show that democracy was far preferable to China's mix of authoritarianism and state capitalism.

Chapter 4/China: Uncharted Waters

Clinton calls the U.S.-China relationship "full of challenges," a relationship that does not fit "neatly into categories like friend or rival." She focuses primarily on tensions over the South China Sea, which bubbled up just two months into the Obama administration. China had been asserting claim to wide swaths of water, alarming its Asian neighbors, as well as the United States. This created what Clinton calls an "opportunity" in Hanoi in July 2010 for her to stand up to the Chinese on behalf of ministers from Vietnam and other countries. The Chinese foreign minister was "livid," she writes, but diplomats in the region later called the moment "a tipping point . . . in terms of American leadership."

On the plane home, Clinton was consumed with "other urgent business" — the wedding of her daughter, Chelsea, now just a week away. She recalls sending a Mother's Day e-mail to State Department staff signed "MOTB" (mother of the bride) and daydreaming about wedding plans during an Oval Office meeting with President Obama and then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. When the big day finally arrives and Bill Clinton dances with Chelsea to "The Way You Look Tonight," Hillary Clinton calls it "one of the happiest and proudest moments of my life."

Chapter 5/Beijing: The Dissident

Finally, a page-turner! The chapter offers a close retelling of the Chen Guangcheng drama, which began just as Clinton and then-Treasury Secretary Timothy M. Geithner were about to travel to Beijing for a strategic and economic summit. Chen is a blind dissident who advocated on behalf of fellow villagers against local authorities. He escaped house arrest, injured his foot and traveled to Beijing, where he sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy. In Clinton's retelling, the entire episode was a bit surreal, with tense negotiations over Chen's fate playing out behind the scenes as she and Geithner publicly engaged in polite talks with Chinese leaders about larger strategic matters — each side desperate to avoid sparking a crisis. Despite the high-wire act, Clinton writes that her decision to send embassy officials out to retrieve Chen and offer him refuge "wasn't a close call."

Chapter 6/Burma: The Lady and the Generals

Clinton call Burma's transformation "a high point of my time as Secretary." Clinton writes of nudging things along as a new leader became president, the release of Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and the halting of construction of a Chinese dam on the sacred Irrawaddy River. Finally, Obama speaks directly to Suu Kyi by phone — swapping "stories about their dogs" — and clears Clinton for the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to Burma in more than 50 years. Highlights of that trip: Meeting Suu Kyi in person. Hearing that the speaker of the lower house of parliament was "trying to understand how to run a Parliament" by watching "The West Wing." And taking off her shoes at an ancient Buddhist temple in Rangoon, where journalists took note of her "sexy siren red" toenail polish.


Chapter 7/Af-Pak Surge

Three days before Thanksgiving 2009, Clinton recalls sitting in the White House situation room as Obama asked for advice about Afghanistan, which "was on its way to becoming the longest [war] in American history." The summer had gone badly, with an increase in Taliban fighters and attacks on NATO forces, and an election marred by widespread fraud. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal asked for more troops. In the end, Obama decided on a "surge" of 30,000 troops, focused on security, human services and helping the government, with a deadline for withdrawal in 18 months. The military brass went away happy, but Vice President Biden was displeased and warned of a "bloody quagmire." As for Clinton, she writes that she was "under no illusions about how difficult it would be to turn around this war. But all things considered I believed that the President had made the right choice and put us in the best position to succeed."

Chapter 8/Afghanistan: To End a War

Clinton writes about trying to conscript Pakistan into the effort to secure Afghanistan's future. The United States held secret talks with a top aide to Mohammad Omar, head of the Taliban. Prisoner swaps, Clinton wrote, were discussed, including Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. "The Taliban's top concern seemed to be the fate of its fighters being held at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons," Clinton writes, adding that in every such discussion "we demanded the release" of Bergdahl.

Chapter 9/Pakistan: National Honor

The highlight of this chapter is easy: Clinton details the meetings that led up to the move on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the tense moments as the raid took place. Officials held regular meetings in March and April leading up to the May 1, 2011, raid. Then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and national security adviser Tom Donilon supported a raid; then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates didn't. Biden also was skeptical.

On April 28, 2011, Obama convened the group for one last meeting in the situation room. He asked everyone at the table for their final recommendation. Clinton writes that since Obama and she were both lawyers,  she had learned to appeal to Obama's analytical mind and laid out the case that the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success.


Chapter 10/Europe: Ties That Bind

A social chapter, where Clinton lists her many friends in Europe, attends many dinners and shakes many hands. When not discussing NATO or Turkey — two of the biggest challenges to watch in Europe during her tenure — she often looks back to how foreign policy has changed since she was first lady. She spends a significant amount of time discussing Serbia and Kosovo, and ends the chapter in Northern Ireland. She admired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite the austerity, and once called French leader Nicolas Sarkozy "her Prince Charming." Not surprising, given Clinton's recent emphasis on climate change, she singles out her U.S.-E.U. Energy Council proposal as one of her big focuses in Europe.

Chapter 11/Russia: Reset and Regression

Much of the chapter works as a defense of the "reset" with Russia and gives Clinton the opportunity to look incredibly prescient on Russia in hindsight. The reset begins with a blunder, when American diplomats hand the Russian foreign minister a reset button that reads "overcharged" instead of "reset." Clinton thought U.S.-Russian relations were going swimmingly with then-President Dmitry Medvedev but knew things would go downhill when Vladimir Putin returned. When Clinton left the State Department, she warned Obama to take a harder line with Russia.

Chapter 12/Latin America: Democrats and Demagogues

Clinton's hard choices in Latin America include saying that the problem of drug cartels "is also an American problem" and that the United States has a responsibility to address it; working to keep Cuba out of the Organization of American States while also working to increase the United States' soft-power influence on the isolated country; and helping Honduras after it suffered a coup.

She says not bringing back USAID contractor Alan Gross was one of her regrets as secretary and described the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as "a self-aggrandizing dictator who was more of an aggravation than a real threat, except to his own citizens."

Chapter 13/Africa: Guns or Growth?

Clinton begins her chapter on Africa by posing the question that plagued the State Department during her time there: How to help the progress happening in so many countries while also stemming the "chaos and privation" that still dominate? Clinton's priorities in the region included working to reward countries that were succeeding at democracy, helping stop violence against women, expanding PEPFAR -- President George W. Bush's program to fight HIV/AIDS in the region -- and helping poor and hungry families. She discusses China's growing economic influence in the region, South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela's influence and that time a Kenyan councilman wanted to trade 40 goats and 20 cows for Chelsea Clinton's hand in marriage.


Chapter 14: The Middle East: The Rocky Path of Peace

Clinton traces her deep connections and involvement with efforts to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. She very carefully portrays herself as a longtime champion of both Israelis and Palestinians and a dogged advocate of a two-state solution. She reveals that she expressed quiet reservations about one of Obama's more politically perilous foreign policy decisions: his public push for Israelis to accept a moratorium on the building of new settlements in 2009 prior to the start of substantive new negotiations. After several rounds of tricky, difficult and substantive talks, Clinton acknowledges by the end of the chapter that prospects for peace have dimmed and concludes with merely a hope that both sides will one day decide to pursue the topic more seriously.

Chapter 15/The Arab Spring: Revolution

Clinton describes U.S. reaction to the unfolding protests that became the Arab Spring, starting with the first stirrings of protest in Tunisia. She defends traditional U.S. alliances with autocratic regimes as part of balancing various U.S. interests against one another, defining a pragmatic approach that would have the United States push regimes toward democratic reform while also forming alliances with those willing to advance U.S. security interests. She describes herself as being consistently more cautious about siding with protesters who promise an uncertain future over longtime, if autocratic, U.S. allies -- particularly in Egypt. She suggests her position aligned her with Biden and Gates in opposition to others in the White House, who she suggests were swept away by idealism and wanted to move more quickly to help usher Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. However, she never names the White House officials who held a different view from her own.

Chapter 16/Libya: All Necessary Measures

Clinton describes the intense and delicate negotiations necessary to build an international coalition to impose a no-fly zone in Libya and ultimately topple Moammar Gaddafi from power. Her own thinking evolved over time, she writes. At first, she opposes any U.S. military intervention, fearful of seeing the United States drawn into the conflict. But when the Arab League requests a no-fly zone, she comes to believe the United States could take part in a carefully coordinated, multi-nation effort to prevent the slaughter of civilians. She outlines her own efforts to build that coalition and strongly defends Obama against those who accused him of "leading from behind" in Libya. "That's a silly phrase," she writes. "It took a great deal of leading — from the front, the side and every other direction, to authorize and accomplish the mission and to prevent what might have been the loss of tens of thousands of lives."

Chapter 17/Benghazi: Under Attack

"I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans," Clinton writes of the debate over the events of Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya. Despite that pronounced willingness to stay out of the fight, Clinton tackles every point of contention that's been raised about her response to the attacks on the two American compounds. She walks through the tragedy, dismissing conspiracy theories as she goes, and describes the emotional aftermath of deaths: the sadness of meeting the families of the four men killed; the anger at the politicization of what occurred. She reserves special attention for the role of the anti-Islamic YouTube video, which "was indeed a factor" in the attack, based on various pieces of evidence she outlines. If Clinton is abstaining from the slugfest, it's apparently in part because she hopes this chapter might serve as a knockout blow.

Chapter 18/Iran: Sanctions and Secrets

Clinton explores the evolution of America's relationship with Iran over the past 20 years: cautious overtures in the administration of her husband, near-obliteration in the "Axis of Evil" era, and the beginning of a quiet rapprochement while she was secretary of state.

Clinton points to several key inflection points as significant, including the passage of additional sanctions at the United Nations in 2010. She describes a critical meeting with her Chinese counterpart that enabled that vote to be successful, a meeting unnoticed by the press despite it being "right under their nose" at a bar in Peru. Those sanctions, she argues, coupled with the introduction of a secret back channel by the sultan of Oman, gave the United States a chance to begin the serious negotiations that became public last year. She offers one hint of regret: that the United States didn't do enough in 2009 to foster the Green Revolution opposition to then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Chapter 19/Syria: A Wicked Problem

Clinton writes with a tone of resignation about the repeated failures of international diplomacy to address the spreading conflict in Syria during 2011 and 2012, including her own attempt to rally opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations in January 2012. And she notably discusses how her stance on arming Syrian rebels changed during her tenure.

One argument for direct American intervention was that Washington might be able to wield more influence on the ground, including on where lethal arms wound up, if it was involved, Clinton writes. That was the view she eventually adopted, after a discussion with then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus at her home in July 2012 and a meeting with ally Turkey the following month. She felt assured that the United States, Turkey and Jordan could keep tabs on the rebels receiving arms to ensure the weapons didn't go to extremists. But Clinton and others in the administration weren't able to change Obama's mind. She says that Obama had promised her she would always get a fair hearing, and that in the case of Syria she did. But she also acknowledges that "no one likes to lose a debate, including me," making clear that she advocated a different strategy in Syria, where the fighting rages on.

Chapter 20/Gaza: Anatomy of a cease-fire

Clinton highlights her role as negotiator in this chapter, saying the sudden outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in the fall of 2012 posed a "crucial test of America's leadership." She left what she considered an important Asian trip alongside Obama in late November, flying to the Mideast on an emergency mission to broker a cease-fire that would involve the new Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. Her challenge in November was to get Morsi on board with a cease-fire in Gaza, interceding in stalled talks between Israel and Egypt, which was representing Hamas.

History had thrust the untested leader Morsi from the "back room to the big chair," Clinton says, and it was unclear whether he would or could play the role of statesman. Clinton says she brought a cease-fire proposal agreed to with Israel, and she and Morsi went over it, line by line. The gamble worked, and a text of a cease-fire was agreed. The cease-fire held, against long odds. Morsi's government was toppled by a military-backed coup the following July, and Morsi remains in jail.


Chapter 21/Climate Change: We're All in This Together

Here's Clinton's bid to persuade voters that climate change is real, that we have to do something about it and that she has been instrumental in the push toward an enforceable international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

The chapter opens with Obama and Clinton "barging uninvited into a closed meeting with the Premier of China" during an international conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009 — like "a diplomatic version of Starsky and Hutch," as Newsweek described them. The larger point seems to be to remind everyone that Clinton persuaded Obama to come to Copenhagen, over the advice of skittish White House advisers who were "nervous" that attending the gridlocked talks wouldn't be "worth the President's time." She paints that decision as leading to a modest agreement that, "while far from perfect, saved the summit from failure" and paved the way for future progress.

Chapter 22/Jobs and Energy: A Level Playing Field

A particularly soul-killing read, focused mainly on Clinton's efforts as a senator and as secretary of state to persuade foreigners to buy our stuff. She persuades Algeria to give General Electric a big contract to help build six natural gas plants. She battles China and the Bush administration to help the glassmaker Corning. She battles China some more on behalf of FedEx and UPS. And then she gets Russia to buy Boeing jets. Clinton notes that U.S. exports have increased by 50 percent since 2009 (Obama promised to double them), growing four times as fast as the economy as a whole: "Though millions of American are still out of work, these are meaningful results."

Chapter 23/Haiti: Disaster and Development

In this chapter, Clinton makes the argument for why international development aid benefits the United States as well as foreign recipients. Using the example of the Haitian earthquake and its aftermath, she suggests rebuilding efforts are not just compassionate but in the interest of the United States. While she acknowledges the efforts in Haiti had some serious problems, such as the outbreak of cholera, Clinton identifies the establishment of Haiti's Caracol industrial park as a new model of development in which the United States seeks to break the cycle of dependence among donor recipients.

Chapter 24/21st Century Statecraft: Digital Diplomacy in a Networked World

In this chapter, Clinton describes her work championing new technology as a way to promote freedom of expression. Noting that she is not tech-savvy, though she's attached to her iPad, Clinton explains the State Department spent $45 million to help keep dissidents safe online and train more than 5,000 how to use social media for political activism. One innovation the agency developed under the program is a panic button that not only signals to a protester's friends that an arrest is imminent but also eliminates all personal contacts in a phone. She also recounts how she had to personally apologize to multiple foreign dignitaries in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures.

Chapter 25/Human Rights: Unfinished Business

In the final chapter, Clinton makes a case for her focus on women's rights and empowerment, suggesting her efforts to improve women's lives and undertake other human rights issues show her "hybrid" view of foreign policy: neither classic realist nor an idealist.

"Perhaps an idealistic realist," Clinton writes, embodying both impulses just as the United States does. As secretary of state, Clinton writes, she was determined to put the women's empowerment "at the top of America's diplomatic to-do list." Many a male foreign leader sat across from her with "eyes glazed over" when she talked about women's issues, Clinton says. She also recounts efforts to address anti-gay legislation in Uganda, Russia and elsewhere, and to put the United States on record opposing discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgendered people.


Clinton fondly recounts her final foreign trip with Obama, to Asia, in November 2012. They visited Burma, which she considered one of her greatest successes, and Cambodia. During the trip, Obama asked her whether she would consider staying on, she says, and she declined. She says she had always planned to stay only one term.

Clinton says her decision about whether to run for president in 2016 is very much on her mind, but she ends by saying she has not decided.

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