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Hard Choices in a Time of Extremism

08/05/2014 02:05 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2014
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In a Time of Extremism, Extreme Competence and Perseverance Carry The Day

Hillary Clinton could not have known (could she?) when writing Hard Choices that in July 2014 the world would be in a virtual meltdown, with extremists of various stripes on the rise seemingly everywhere. Internationally, there is the dangerous nationalism and ambition for empire-rebuilding being carried out by Vladimir Putin, in ways both coherent and incoherent. Even more frightening -- because we understand it even less well -- are religious zealots and their state sponsors running amok across the Middle East. Meanwhile on the domestic front, extreme elements of one of our two principal national parties have caused dysfunction and the near-breakdown of our polity at a time of unique and pressing challenges: health care, immigration, and the nation's basic infrastructure, to name just three. On top of all this, the emergence of Ebola is a pile-on that, while hardly man-made, appears as a metaphor for a world that seems to have gone mad.

Against this backdrop stands the former secretary's book and, with August's arrival (and, if we are lucky, a quieter month of introspection and actual book reading), the chance to assess the strengths of extreme competence and steady-as-she goes perseverance that the author brings to once, and perhaps future, national challenges.

Here's what you need to know about Hard Choices, including some tips on how to address this worthy tome.

First of all, this reviewer discovered that the book is a much more interesting read than expected. While there is plenty here for policy wonks, there are also gripping tales that have the quality of a page-turner. The lead-up to Osama Bin Laden's death in Pakistan, the rescue of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in Beijing, that famous first flight from Malta into Tripoli, Libya (immortalized by a Hillary-as-commando meme that went viral), the president and secretary literally crashing a private meeting of dissenting world leaders at the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen -- these are all here.

But beyond these events, I was impressed by how very accessible this book is. Clinton's prose is simple and matter-of-fact, with complex issues explained in (mostly) plain language. While many Beltway-insiders may roll their eyes at facts and policy arguments they already know by heart, this book wasn't written only for them; rather it was written for Jane Q. Citizen, who reads to learn of recent history, and perhaps to gain insights into a future that may yet be. What Jane Q. will also find in Hard Choices are lesser known, but no less fascinating, foreign policy efforts and events that make equally riveting reading -- like the secret U.S. effort to negotiate peace with the Taliban, the secretary's heart-rending visit with women and children in Eastern Congo, and the extraordinary tale told to her by President Putin about how he came to be born(!)

On the "wonk" side there are real serious, cogent explanations of things you may not have quite understood before. This is an evidence-based book, so facts and statistics often come fast: like the fact that the United States spends less than 1 percent of its annual budget on foreign assistance (rather than the "28 percent" that resides in the popular imagination) or that "Secretary of State" is the addressee on each and every one of the millions of cables that come in to Washington from over 270 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world every year -- and that only a tiny, tiny fraction of these ever reach the secretary's own desk (therefore debunking the misinformation spread by political opponents that the secretary was directly apprised of the Libyan security situation, pre-Benghazi). Among many other subjects, Clinton explains the pragmatism that lay behind the Russian "reset" and, in detail, why the reset did not mean capitulation -- far from it.

While it's notable that Clinton abstains from using this book to settle old scores, she includes careful explanations of events and decisions small and large that may have caused head-scratching -- or outright dissent -- at the time they happened. For example, instead of squarely laying at least some responsibility for Benghazi's inadequate security at Congress' doorstep, Clinton merely alludes rather softly to her "four years making the case to Congress that adequately funding our diplomats and development experts was a national security priority" at a time of shrinking Congressional appropriations.

Clinton also acknowledges her mistake -- in the plainest language possible -- on the subject of her 2002 vote authorizing President Bush to wage war in Iraq, yet also lets us fully understand the context of that vote: one in which a strong majority of then-sitting senators voted "yes" with Clinton on a bill that, by its terms, instructed the president (not yet known, in 2002, for waging preemptive wars) to 'use diplomacy before using force' and 'not to wage war unless U.S. national security is at stake.'

Perhaps most importantly for this book, there is heart, soul and emotion. Clinton saves some of the most expansive, lofty language for her worldwide, and life-spanning, efforts on behalf of women and girls, and this reviewer was especially heartened by all the space she devotes to perhaps the final frontier of international human rights: the plight of LGBT people in the developing world, starting with her description of the first time she uttered the words, at a State Department Pride event, "human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights, once and for all."

A couple of parting tips on how to read Hard Choices, especially if you find its telephone book size to be daunting: you don't have to read it cover to cover. The book is organized like a marvelous worldwide travelogue, so while I highly recommend that you begin by reading "Part One: A Fresh Start" (which contains its own share of riveting stories of the Obama-Clinton 2008 rapprochement that are new or newly told), proceed from there by dipping into the parts of the world -- or towards the end, the international challenges -- that tickle your fancy, and come back to the rest later on.

And, oh yes, about that last question you have for Hillary Clinton: will she run for president? Many have quoted the following language from the book's last chapter as a sign that she will: "Never rest on your laurels. Never quit. Never stop working to make the world a better place. That's our unfinished business."

But I prefer the following, from the epilogue:

In the coming years, Americans will have to decide whether we are prepared to learn from and call on the lessons of history and rise once more to defend our values and interests. This is not a summons to confrontation or to a new Cold War -- we've learned painfully that force should be our last resort, never our first. Instead, it's an appeal to stand firmly and united in pursuit of a more just, free and peaceful world. Only Americans can decide this.

Clinton then continues by devoting a long paragraph to America's domestic challenges, including rising income inequality, deepening poverty in many quarters, and Washington's increasing dysfunction. And finally, this: "In the end, our strength abroad depends on our resolve and resilience at home."

July was a month when at least four separate wars raged across the Middle East and South Asia, an American Embassy was evacuated in North Africa, and a commercial airliner was shot out of the sky over Ukraine -- the deadliest such incident in history. Unfortunately, we can expect to look forward to more rather than fewer months like July. To battle feckless extremism wherever it arises, we need feral competence and discipline and perseverance at our helm. Whether by accident or by design, Hard Choices doggedly makes the case for the person to lead us who is best placed to deliver more democracy, more freedom and more peacefulness the world over -- and it doesn't hurt that this person has the biggest, most diverse rolodex on the planet.