if your interest in Hillary Clinton is limited to her marriage — after all, has there ever been anything like it in American political history? — or the speculation she’ll run for president in 2016, you’ll be disappointed in The Secretary by Kim Ghattas.
But if you’re looking for a reporter’s balanced and informed perspective on Clinton as secretary of State and what it was like to travel with her — to 40 countries, covering 300,000 miles — the book is an engaging read. It’s both personal and political, but Ghattas is far more interested in foreign policy than in gossip.
As an author, she has two things going for her: Since 2008, she has been the State Department correspondent for the BBC, a news operation that’s serious about foreign affairs, whether it’s Afghanistan or Brazil. She has had 18 one-on-one interviews with Clinton.
And Ghattas has an unique personal perspective. She grew up in Beirut in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990, when she was 13. “I had lived on the receiving end of American foreign policy,” Ghattas writes. “I knew the very real-life consequences of decisions made at the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon.” She’s skeptical but not cynical.
Ghattas credits Clinton with transforming herself from a polarizing politician into a indefatigable diplomat who could be cheerful after a night of no sleep, boarding her plane at 3 a.m. When she wanted to be, Clinton was candid and chatty.
Around the world, Clinton “had a knack for becoming friends with everyone from the boorish Boris Yeltsin to the quiet president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak,” Ghattas writes. “She often ended up liking people she never expected to like because she had come to understand and empathize with their history and background.”
Ghattas reports that for the most part, Clinton worked well with President Obama, her former political rival.
The book’s revelations deal with details of foreign policy, including how Clinton persuaded Obama to intervene in Libya but failed to push for more decisive action in Syria.
In four years, Clinton did not make peace in the Middle East, stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear program, or set Afghanistan on a certain path to prosperity, but Ghattas sees a larger if less tangible accomplishment: “Working with the United States had once again become desirable” in a complex world that can no longer be reduced to “you are with us or against us.”
Clinton saw part of her job as secretary of State as selling the U.S. to the rest of the world, which she did in endless interviews and town-hall meetings in a kind of international campaign. At a women’s university in South Korea, Ghattas reports that Clinton wooed a crowd filled with “the creme de la creme of Korean society … No official of theirs had ever spoken to them with such candor or made herself so accessible and human.
“And in a deeply patriarchal society, with still-formal notions of how a senior official should behave, a woman with Hillary’s power, speaking in such a manner, was nothing short of extraordinary.”
More cynical observers would argue that Clinton was also selling herself, part of her latest transformation. But that’s a question that Ghattas leaves to her readers to decide.