Stages of Hillary as a star player wins over rivals
My review of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes published in The Australian on March 22:
Hillary Clinton deftly steps down from the plane, her blonde hair pulled back, her face behind outsize sunglasses. Beaming star power, she declares it’s wonderful to be in Perth.
Wonderful? It has been 35 hours with three stops to get to Australia for annual talks, part of her 1.5 million kilometres notched up as US secretary of state, visiting 112 out of 193 nations. Later she tells me she sleeps on planes and, yes, she believes in vitamins. At our dinner she shows no fatigue, handles all with breezy grace.
When we last saw her in the pages of a book it was in Game Change (2010) by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. They captured her in June 2008 in her Senate office after her defeat in the Democratic primaries. She declared: “We had the entire press corps against us, which usually Bill and I could care less, but this was above and beyond anything that had ever happened.” She seemed punch drunk, dazed.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s HRC, which covers Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, takes up the story at this point, with her staff putting together a list of traitors who had to be punished for swinging to Barack Obama. Later, a Clinton aide would see divine justice in the downfall — one after the other — of these miscreants, as the authors record: “ ‘Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down … Ted Kennedy,’ the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, ‘dead’.”
Despite the sulphur in the air, it was impossible for her to say no to the job offer from the President. And Obama handled her adroitly, overruling his staff to let her have her loyalists on the payroll, including as chief of protocol, a position usually chosen by the president.
Early manoeuvres between Obama and Clinton were as delicate as a merger of two corporations, recalls one adviser. Obama’s deference allowed this team of rivals to fall into place. When Clinton suffered concussion in 2012 he was to say of her: “I love her, love her … I love my friend.” He’s expected to support her over Vice-President Joe Biden if (or when) she announces for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
In this career shift she displayed the adaptability she had shown in inventing herself as a Senate candidate from New York in 2000 and, after her win, as a member of the Senate club. It’s “stages of Hillary”, one insider says. You start by dreading working with her, then begrudgingly start to respect her; then outright respect her because of her ferocious work ethic. Then, you actually come to like her “and she’s charming and she’s funny and she’s interesting and she’s inquisitive and she’s engaging”.
Secretaries of state can be overshadowed by the national security staff in the White House. One Clinton response, however, was to build strong alliances with defence secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus. It was this alliance with the Pentagon that in December 2009 persuaded the President to favour a surge of troop numbers in Afghanistan, a policy battle captured in yet another of Bob Woodward’s lugubrious books, Obama’s Wars (2010).
Nobody can audit Clinton’s four years as secretary of state without reference to the recklessness of the preceding Bush years. Today, George W. seems locked up in what looks like house arrest in Preston Hollow in Dallas, and his swivel-eyed advisers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are held accountable for two trillion-dollar wars that only demonstrated US weakness and enlarged its enemies.
The first Obama administration had to absorb the cost of these adventures. It was plain as day America could not shape events in the Middle East. The US has no more influence in what happens in the Crimea than it had over Russian invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively.
In an era calling for policy proportionate and measured, it was right to lead from behind on Libya, right — after agonising — to decline support for Syrian rebels. It was right to accede a Russian role on Syrian chemical weapons and to talk to Iran. It is what the war-weary US public wants anyway.
I record in my diaries how an Australian businessman suggested I needed to pick more arguments with the US to demonstrate our independence to China. I said apart from any other objection this would be hard when it came to the Obama administration and secretary of state Clinton. When they seek to conserve and not squander the US’s smart power, to engage with the Islamic world, or to elevate the rights of women and girls in developing countries, their stance reflects what most Australians would want to see in their American partner.
The authors argue Clinton had no spectacular “marquee achievements” such as a heraldic peace agreement. They might have added, no new architecture for global consultations. But in a book devoted to beltway gossip, they are at least wise enough to see Clinton’s success should not be measured in these terms anyway. She was a success in nurturing relationships, handling crises such as Gaza, and saying no to the draining adventurism of the previous administration.
There is a view in Southeast Asia that the American commitment to our region — the rebalance to Asia — is not something anyone can rely on. I have heard this from foreign ministers, diplomats, think tankers. They could argue this book supports their case. Its 440 pages include two chapters on Benghazi but no mention of the pivot to Asia, of Clinton’s hard work in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the deep feel for Asia of her assistant, Kurt Campbell. If a pair of Washington insiders can entirely overlook US commitments to our part of the world, then a future administration can easily forget they were ever made.