THE BLOG
12/08/2014 01:32 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Last Look at Hillary's Book

Clues To Her Future Foreign Policy, and How She Will Govern

Hillary Clinton could not have known (could she?) when writing Hard Choices that in the summer and fall of 2014 the world would be in 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 otherwise. Even more frightening -- because we understand it 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 was a pile-on that, while hardly man-made, appeared as a metaphor for a world gone mad.

Against this backdrop stands the former secretary's book and, with the arrival of the Holiday Season (and, if we are lucky, a quieter time 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 very engaging and, indeed, revealing -- more so than might be expected from this particular Memoir. 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.

Even beyond these events, this is a genuinely accessible book. 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, Clinton didn't write this book only for them; rather it was written for Jane Q. Citizen, who reads to learn of recent history, and 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 that may have caused confusion at the time they occurred. 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. That a heartier Congressional embrace of Clinton's signature smart power doctrine, including more security funding to better enable our development and diplomacy professionals to do their difficult work on many levels, might also have helped avoid Benghazi and other security incidents is implied, if not directly stated.

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.'

Of course, in light of the rise of ISIS and America's recent re-entry into Iraq, the Secretary's 2002 vote -- considered in the proper context -- doesn't now appear quite the error it was long considered to be.

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 you should 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 those last questions you have for Hillary Clinton: when will she announce her run for the presidency, and how will she run? Many have quoted the following language from the book's last chapter as a sign: "Never rest on your laurels. Never quit. Never stop working to make the world a better place. That's our unfinished business."

This reviewer prefers 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 goes on to devote a long paragraph to America's domestic challenges, addressing rising income inequality, deepening poverty in many quarters and Washington's increasing dysfunction -- and thereby offers important clues to how she will run in the primaries and beyond. And finally this: "In the end, our strength abroad depends on our resolve and resilience at home."

The past six months since publication of Clinton's book have been a time when a commercial airliner was shot out of the sky over Ukraine (the deadliest such incident in human history), at least four separate wars raged across the Middle East and South Asia, and heinous, barbaric executions of Americans took place for all the world to see. Unfortunately, we can expect to look forward to more rather than fewer such periods. 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 she has the biggest, most diverse rolodex on the planet.