August Issue 2014
Book Review: Hard Choices
By Ghazi Salahuddin | Published 9 years ago
A woman president of the United States of America is surely an idea whose time has come. And Hillary Clinton is out there, as if waiting in the wings. Indeed, she had come tantalisingly close to winning the Democratic nomination in the 2008 campaign. But it was Barack Obama who raced past her and won the coveted ticket. So, is it Hillary’s turn in 2016?
No other woman politician in the United States has her credentials. She has been a First Lady, a Senator for New York and the Secretary of State. During her stint as the chief diplomat of her country during Obama’s first term, she made a great impression, and Hard Choices is a memoir of this specific period. The timing of its appearance — in the summer of 2014 — and the manner in which it is being promoted has the unmistakable trappings of a campaign. It’s being viewed as a veritable announcement of her decision to become a candidate. But, Hillary is waiting.
Because of the excitement that Hillary Clinton’s candidature would naturally generate, Hard Choices arrived with a bang. In the initial days follwing its publication on June 10, it was the number one best seller in the non-fiction category, and Hillary was making headlines on a daily basis because of the media buzz and promotional tours. But there is a sense of a hangover now. The book, truly a tome with its 600 pages, is not easy to read and provides no revealing, or juicy, insights into the life and career of a person who could be the next US president.
What it does provide, however, at times with some tedious details and statistics, is a graphic account of how America uses its power in a troubled world. In her account of how she dealt with the challenges confronting American foreign policy, Hillary has made extensive use of research and relevant references. It is an enlightening account in many senses. We have ample evidence of how hard she worked to leave her stamp on American diplomacy; after all, she traveled nearly one million miles and visited 112 countries. We become aware of how an American secretary of state is lodged at the centre of all global developments. Hard Choices is very educative and could easily serve as a text-book in higher education of diplomacy.
A Pakistani reader would naturally be interested in how she viewed and managed relations between the two countries. In addition to separate chapters on ‘Af-Pak: Surge’ and ‘Afghanistan: To End a War,’ we have 31 pages devoted to ‘Pakistan: National Honour.’ This chapter begins appropriately with an account of the attack on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, as they sat in that secure room in the basement of the West Wing in the White House on May 1, 2011. The bin Laden operation, she agrees, did not end the threat of terrorism “or defeat the hateful ideology that fuels it.”
In any case, references to Pakistan in the Af-Pak arena and in a bilateral context do not provide any insightful revelations or anecdotes that would make headlines in the media. This is unlike memoirs written by other leading functionaries of the US administration. Clinton argues that US efforts in Afghanistan in the early phase were subverted by the ISI since its elements “had a long-standing relationship with the Taliban, going back to the struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s.” Not very enlightening, really.
However, an account of her visit to Pakistan in late October 2009 is interesting. One quote: “Even when a civilian government is nominally in charge, the influence of the army remains pervasive. One of our travelling journalists asked me on the plane ride over, Was I convinced that the Pakistani military and intelligence services had cut off all ties with terrorists? No, I said, I was not.” She recalls that when she sat down with a group of Pakistani television reporters, “from the first minute, their questions were suspicious and hostile.”
Even though Hard Choices has been called “prosaic,” “faintly robotic” and “long, exhausting” by some of the reviewers, Hillary is very scholarly and thorough in her approach. Obviously, the decision to stay away from some personal and controversial issues was deliberate. The focus is very much on how she worked to “reorient American foreign policy around what I call ‘smart power.’” Her intention, professedly, was to help Americans and people elsewhere “who are trying to make sense of this rapidly changing world of ours.”
What is relevant for her, however, is to make sense of the changing world of American politics and where she belongs in this sphere. Sadly, the book has not worked well for her politics and has not come up to expectations. It was reported that Simon & Schuster paid her an advance of eight million dollars for the book, which has not been doing so well after the initial excitement. And the great irony is that the book that replaced Hard Choices as number one on The New York Times’ non-fiction bestsellers list is an exposÃ© of the Clintons’ rocky relationship with Barack Obama.
The book is Blood Feud: The Clintons vs the Obamas, and shows the kind of opposition that Hillary must face from the conservatives and right-wingers of American politics. It does not appear to be an honest work, but as far as the readers are concerned, Edward Klein has served them with a page-turner. This raises the question that if Hard Choices had been more gossipy and candid about the seamy side of American politics, would it better serve Hillary’s choices and chances? After all, she makes no mention at all of Anthony Weiner, the husband of her top aide Huma Abedin, who was involved in a sex scandal.
Finally, the big question that is embedded in Hard Choices is left unanswered. Is Hillary going to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for 2016? In his Daily Show in mid-July, Jon Stewart said: “I think I speak for everybody when I say nobody cares, they just want to know if you are running for president.” Hillary’s answer was the same that appears near the end of her book: “I haven’t decided yet.” Will her book sales pick up if she decides to run?
Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.