Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton.

Simon and Schuster, 2014

Are Americans ageists? Misogynists? Are they too parochial to appreciate the accomplishments of a great secretary of state in far-flung lands? The political left is puzzling over why Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her four years running the State Department, Hard Choices, has fallen from atop the New York Times’ best-seller list. (And even worse: Bested by Ed Klein’s Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas.) Here’s the Occam’s razor explanation: Because Hard Choices is a book about nothing. 

That’s not to say that Hillary didn’t write a lot. She did — 600 pages’ worth of words — with assists from long-time Clintonistas Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills, Philippe Reines, and Jake Sullivan, and it shows. Hard Choices reads as if it were an official report written by committee; a rote recantation of where Clinton went, when, and to whom she spoke, with trite observations about locals sprinkled here and there. Every chapter is on a different part of the world, neatly organised, as if it were outlined in an Excel spreadsheet and then elaborated on in Word, with each phrase carefully weighed, considered, vetted. 

There Clinton is in Nay Pyi Taw fretting over “local cultural norms” trying to find “outfits in the appropriate colour for Burma.” There she is, with US envoy George Mitchell, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, “crammed” into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “personal study” in “the well-to-do-neighbourhood of Rehavia,” trying to hash out a peace plan. There she is in Monterrey, Mexico, opining on the scourge of drug trafficking. There she is, visiting her old friend Nelson Mandela, tenderly calling him “Madiba.” There she is, reluctantly taking a tour of the Old City of Sanaa, Yemen, at the behest the “corrupt and autocratic” Ali Abdullah Saleh. Look! A sighting in Mongolia. 

Hard Choices is no companion to Kissinger’s Diplomacy or Thatcher’s Statecraft — both reflections on years, nay, decades of fraught decision-making, with mistakes acknowledged and lessons learned. Nor is it a successor to Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” a sharp little nine-page Commentary essay which set the Reagan administration on its course to fell the Soviet Union. But there was never a chance that Hillary would pen a book, or even an essay, like that. What the Clintons do best is to triangulate the politics of every situation for personal gain. They do not think deeply about what they believe and follow that belief if it means swimming against public opinion at the time. 

As secretary of state, Clinton eagerly straddles both sides of every conflict. She was “an early voice calling publicly for Palestinian statehood” but also feels “personally invested in Israel’s security and success.” She supports negotiations with the Taliban, while acknowledging that talking to them “would be hard to swallow for many Americans.” She defends the Russian “reset” while denouncing Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea. She endorses “both engagement and pressure” on Iran. China “requires both a true compass and the flexibility to make frequent course corrections, including sometimes painful trade-offs.” She defends her decision to approve military action in Iraq in 2002, then disavows it. 

Clinton wraps all this equivocation up in the language of “smart power,” which she defines as “choosing the right combination of tools — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — for each situation.” How even-handed, how diplomatic, how 21st century for a “21st-century diplomat.” Being secretary of state isn’t just one job, but three: “the country’s chief diplomat, the President’s principal advisor on foreign policy, and the CEO of a sprawling Department.” 

The trouble is that without an underlying view of the world and how it works — and why — Clinton’s polished jargon means very little. Which makes Hard Choices the perfect book for what Hillary wants to do next: run for president. 

The content of the book is almost beside the point, so long as it paints Hillary as unthreatening in every situation. For liberals in the Barack Obama era, conviction, especially in foreign affairs, is a bad word, and they believe it’s a bad word for independents, too — a crucial voting bloc. The George W. Bush Administration is its very own Axis of Evil, as Hard Choices makes clear, over and over again. At her first town hall meeting, in Tokyo, Clinton declares America is “ready to listen again.” President Bush is responsible for the current rot in Iraq, for strained relations with Russia (Clinton gleefully recounts Mr. Bush’s assertion that he was “able to get a sense” of Putin’s “soul”), for tensions with China, and just about everything else that’s gone toes-up in the world since Clinton took over at “Foggy Bottom.” 

That’s a convenient trope that might’ve worked when the Obama team enjoyed the sheen of a new presidency, but the Hard Choices blame-Bush mantra now rings hollow. In 2009 Iraq was stable and even the Obama team was boasting of its success, but then Vice President Joe Biden failed to negotiate an agreement to keep US troops in the country. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki soon started persecuting his sectarian rivals. When Iran started flying arms to Syria’s regime over Iraqi airspace, Iraq was powerless to stop it. In Syria, Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates failed to convince President Obama to arm rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have since been slaughtered. Jihadists streamed over the border to Iraq to create a caliphate, realising Osama bin Laden’s vision. 

Under Clinton’s watch, the US abandoned Iran’s democracy protestors and negotiated a deal allowing the mullahs to keep developing their nuclear weapons capacity. The United States did little to influence the outcome of the Arab Spring, which has birthed new strongmen in Egypt and may soon do the same in Libya. Putin has invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. China’s Communists feels so emboldened that they’ve claimed the entire South China Sea as a “core interest,” seized Japanese airspace, a Philippine shoal, and parked an oil rig off the Vietnamese coast in disputed waters. North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda is alive and kicking across the Middle East. No one can argue that the world is more stable today than when President George W. Bush left office. No wonder Hard Choices devotes an entire chapter to that crucially important nation of… Burma. 

This recent history raises urgent questions. Is the rise of an authoritarian China inevitable, or is it an inherently unstable regime that the United States should encourage to democratise? Should an Iran ruled by mullahs who want to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth” be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon? Should Israel destroy Hamas once and for all? Is it morally acceptable to allow Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons to wipe out his opponents? Is the birth of a jihadist state in the centre of the Middle East something that can be contained, or does it need to be destroyed? Could North Korea’s Kim Jong-un acquire nuclear-tipped missiles that could hit the continental United States? Should the United States park troops in Eastern Europe again? How about Iraq and Afghanistan? What purpose does the United Nations really serve? Or USAID, for that matter? Hard Choices answers none of these questions. 

But the book does give the reader a sense of Hillary herself, and her sense of entitlement, if obliquely. She opens an early chapter by recounting her preparation to give Wellesley’s 1969 commencement speech — “the first important public speech of my young life.” She meets Dean Acheson but “never imagined that forty years later I would follow in [his] footsteps at the State Department.” “As First Lady I had flown around the world with Bill in Air Force One, the largest and grandest of government jets,” she recalls, and after leaving office, she travels “extensively on my own, usually in a 757.” Her daughter Chelsea is married in posh Rhinebeck, New York, “at Astor Courts, an elegant Beaux Arts estate designed by the architect Stanford White for Jacob and Eva Astor around the turn of the century.” She laments that as secretary of state, she travels to “Sharm or Bali or Hawaii but then have no time at all to enjoy them.” The heart bleeds. 

Hillary also nakedly courts the youth vote in Hard Choices, emphasising her support of gay rights (a position upon which she, like President Obama has “evolved”) and work to improve LGBT human rights in forums like the United Nations, as if anything that body does has mattered much to autocratic regimes. She makes an appearance on Indonesia’s The Awesome Show, which “felt just like MTV.” She eagerly recounts how a Time photographer “snapped a quick shot” of her texting, which became “the basis for a ‘meme’ known as ‘Texts from Hillary’” and an internet sensation. “Eventually, I decided to get in on the fun myself,” she writes. “I submitted my own version full of internet slang: ‘ROFL @ur tumblr! g2g—scrunchie time, ttyl?’” Try to imagine Margaret Thatcher or James Baker — or even John Kerry — ever typing that. 

The former First Lady seems desperate to identify with average Americans, and it just doesn’t work. On her book tour, she claimed she was “unlike a lot of people who are truly well off,” a comment which was widely ridiculed. Hillary hails from a comfortably upper-middle-class family, attended Wellesley, earned a law degree, married the upwardly mobile politician Bill, and soon found herself occupying a governor’s mansion, then the White House, then a Senate seat, and then the top job at the State Department. There’s nothing common about any of that. 

Then there’s the prickly side to Hillary, which has also come through in the book and on the subsequent book tour. When ABC’s Diane Sawyer pressed her about her responsibility for the security failure in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the death of four Americans, including an ambassador, she floundered. In a friendly interview with NPR’s Gwen Ifill, she rolled out anodyne recantations of the struggles of the average American. Hillary seemed to be all over TV, on every network, for weeks. And who can forget the moment recounted in Hard Choices, when at an event in Kinshasa, she’s asked by a local, “What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton?” and she explodes in anger? (Alas, it turns out the question was mistranslated.) 

 At page 600, I was left wondering, “Who is Hillary Clinton?” Hard Choices, tries to obscure the answer to that question, but perhaps in doing so, answers it. Hillary, is, above all, a survivor. She survived the various humiliations and scandals of her husband’s presidency, from Whitewater to HillaryCare to Monica Lewinsky. She revived her own political reputation in the Senate and forged a name for herself, separate from Bill. She lost the presidential nomination but took the job as secretary of state, giving her a chance to reinvent her image again. Hard Choices is the vehicle through which Hillary wants to introduce herself, again, to the American people. 

The question now is whether America wants a political shapeshifter, happy to tell the American public what she thinks they want to hear, just like her former boss, President Obama. Or to put it another way, would America elect another President who prefers to give lip service to hard choices, but never takes them? Hillary might’ve been better served writing a narrative that honestly examined the failures of her four long years as secretary of state and proposed how not to make the same mistakes again. That would’ve been honest, and hard. But writing a book like that requires hard choices.