Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices: Sneak peek at the memoir

The Straits Times take a sneak peek at Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, which hits the bookstores on Tuesday. -- ST PHOTO
The Straits Times take a sneak peek at Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, which hits the bookstores on Tuesday. -- ST PHOTO

Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, hits the bookstores on Tuesday. It is about her time as the US Secretary of State from 2009-2013 although many observers interpret it as an unofficial kick-off of her prospective 2016 presidential campaign. 

The Straits Times take a sneak peek at the 635-page tome.

Hillary101

TEAM OF RIVALS

The book opens with Clinton lying prone on the back seat of a minivan, sneaking out of her north-west Washington home for a secret meeting with Barack Obama on June 5, 2008. The Democratic primary had been decided. 

“I had lost and he had won,” she says, admitting to profound disappointment. But she was determined to support Obama.

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 Hillary, 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.

Hillary102

ASIA: THE PIVOT

Clinton’s first trip as secretary of state 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 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.

CHINA: UNCHARTED WATERS

Clinton calls the US-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 neighbours, 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”.

Hillary103

HAPPIEST, PROUDEST MOMENT

Clinton recalls sending a Mother’s Day email to State Department staff signed “MOTB” (mother of the bride) and daydreaming about daughter Chelsea’s wedding plans during an Oval Office meeting with President Obama and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

When the big day finally arrives on July 31, 2010, and Bill dances with Chelsea to The Way You Look Tonight, Clinton calls it “one of the happiest and proudest moments of my life”.

THE CHINESE DISSIDENT

Clinton offers a close retelling of the drama of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who advocated on behalf of fellow villagers against local authorities. He escaped house arrest and sought refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing. 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”.

“Our defense of universal human rights is one of America’s greatest sources of strength. The image of Chen, blind and injured, seeking through that dangerous night for the one place he knew stood for freedom and opportunity – the embassy of the United States – reminds us of our responsibility to make sure our country remains the beacon for dissidents and dreamers all over the world.”

Hillary104

THE LADY AND THE GENERALS

“It is sometimes hard to resist getting breathless about Burma,” Clinton writes, calling that country’s transformation “a high point of my time as Secretary”.

Clinton writes of nudging things along as a new leader becomes president, releases Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and halts 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 US secretary of state to Burma, also known as Myanmar, 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.

OSAMA BIN LADEN

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. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and national security adviser Tom Donilon supported a raid; former Defense Secretary Bob Gates didn’t. Vice-President Joe Biden was also sceptical. Clinton “came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success. We just had to make sure it worked.”

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. “The President and I are both lawyers,” Clinton writes, “and I had learned over time how to appeal to his highly analytical mind. So I methodically laid out the case... I concluded, the chance to get bin Laden was worth it.”

Clinton went to a wedding the Saturday night before the raid. A guest asked her: “Secretary Clinton, do you think we’ll ever get bin Laden?” Clinton writes: “I barely suppressed a double take, startled that he had asked me that question on this night of all nights. I responded, ‘well, I sure hope so.’ ”

Hillary105

TAKE ON WORLD LEADERS

Among her most difficult relationships as America's top diplomat was with Russian president Vladimir Putin, with whom she had rocky ties after the failed US-Russia "reset" at the outset of the Obama presidency. "He's always testing you, always pushing the boundaries," she writes of Putin, whom she described as an autocratic leader with an "appetite for more power, territory and influence."

China's President Hu Jintao, meanwhile, was less directly combative and more "scripted" and "polite", Clinton writes. But she finds Hu lacked the "personal authority" of predecessors like Deng Xiaoping. "Hu seemed to me more like an aloof chairman of the board than a hands-on CEO," she writes. "How in control he really was of the entire sprawling Communist Party apparatus was an open question."

She reserved poignant criticism for Iran's president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whom she described as "a Holocaust denier and provocateur who... insulted the West at every turn". The Iranian leader showed himself to be a "bellicose peacock strutting on the world stage," Clinton writes.

Among other US allies, few appeared to hold as much sway for Clinton as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom she described as "the most powerful leader in Europe". "She was carrying Europe on her shoulders," she said of Merkel.

France's Nicolas Sarkozy proved the opposite, often offering "rapid-fire, almost stream-of-consciousness soliloquies" on foreign policy that sucked the oxygen out of a room. "He would gossip, casually describing other world leaders as crazy or infirm," she writes. "One was a 'drug-addled maniac'; another had a military 'that didn't know how to fight'; yet another came from a long line of 'brutes'."

But she adds that "despite his exuberance, (Sarkozy) was always a gentleman".

Hillary106

EPILOGUE

Clinton fondly recounts her final foreign trip with Obama, to Asia, in November 2012. They visited Burma, where she claims diplomatic progress, and Cambodia. During the trip, Obama asked her whether she would consider staying on, 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. She says she has not decided.

SOURCES: WASHINGTON POST, AFP