In the Air with Hillary Clinton

The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power

(Kim Ghattas, Times Books; 2013)

In this absorbing and highly readable work Kim Ghattas, the BBC’s State Department Correspondent, has attempted the ambitious task of combining personal memoir, an on the road record of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s term and an appraisal of the modern reality of US power. Speaking at a Chatham House event this January John Bolton was asked what he thought incoming Secretary of State John Kerry would bring to the job, his reply; nothing apart from racking up more air miles. During her four years Clinton, codename “Evergreen”, would travel a million miles criss-crossing the globe in a threadbare Special Air Mission (SAM) plane that could only fly 10 hours at a time. Ghattas would be there for 300,000 of those air miles, a professional witness to US power as it lived through the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks scandal and the hundreds of other moments of history.

“The Secretary” shows the human story, through Clinton and Ghattas’ own perspectives, of the reality and exercise of power. It also shows the sacrifices that power entails, Clinton is forever on the move and the book’s photographs visibly demonstrate how the exhaustion aged her. Only 9-months into the job and she’d flown 140,000 miles. Ghattas describes the exhaustion of living in “the bubble” with colourful anecdotes punctuating the endless air travel. The State Department press corp. draws straws for the best seats at the back of the plane, Clinton loves Pakistani mangoes and the King of Saudi Arabia wears trainers under his robe.  However as Ghattas is still in post in Washington you still feel that there is a lot more being held back for when she departs the BBC.

To better understand US power Ghattas explains her personal story as having lived at the receiving end of it as a citizen of Lebanon during the Civil War years (1975-1990). She describes the book as a “journey” as whilst growing up under the bombs of war she looked to US responsibility for having to live cowering in basements, navigating sniper allies and rushing across no mans lands. Ghattas was not alone in blaming the US, she interestingly observes that “the blame also allowed our warlords to abdicate their own responsibility to end the war” (p.60). Ghattas explains that under the bombs “I had no ability to empathize with the ‘other’ side” (p.105) yet with a Dutch mother her world view was widened when in her 20s met and fell in love with the ‘other’, someone whose grandparents died in the Holocaust.

The book paints a glowing picture of “Hillary”. What jumps out is both her energy and ability to empathize and connect to people of all persuasions, Ghattas explains that “Hillary always reacted first as a person, as a mother….her empathy was real” (p.104). She can wake up in Japan at 4.30am during a minor earthquake after a long flight but still be buzzing come morning. Wherever she went she carried her personal legacy as a former first lady of the US giving what Ghattas described as “a one-two punch....the combined power of America and of Hillary” (p.35). The book doesn’t pretend to go deep into the political science of Hillary’s politics or ideology. However beyond her personal popularity and connections to the global elite several aspects of her approach to the role emerge. One is her belief in public diplomacy and better connecting American diplomacy with people around the world. Town hall meetings and the use of new communications tools, the State Department employs 150 full time social media staff and 900 diplomats use social media, allowed Hillary to engage with civil society and grassroots civilians of the states she was visiting. Hillary also deployed an army of special envoys, charged with empowering people to solve their own problems. Yet the book doesn’t paint an in-depth human picture of Hillary as perhaps her armour doesn’t allow even journalists close to her to uncover the full personality. A possibly run in 2017 for the Presidency maybe explains why Hillary keeps her cards close to her chest although considering the political firestorm around the Benghazi attacks that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens you feel that Ghattas could have been a more rounded in a critique of her term in post.

What gives the book it’s most unique and potent narrative however is Ghattas’ outsider take on US power from within inside the bubble once both her and Clinton’s backgrounds have been laid out.  As her “journey” reaches its close she writes that “the difference between American power when I lived on the receiving end of it and today is that the gap between what American says it’s doing and what it is doing is becoming narrower” (p.336). This is the contrast to being on the receiving end of what Ghattas saw as the superpower’s policy towards Lebanon. The revelation is as she writes “one of the reasons countries and people were so often disappointed in the United States was their unrealistic expectations of what the US should and could do” (p.115). Here lies the great contrast between the Bush and Obama presidencies. Ghattas originally thought she may be witnessing a decline in US power but then explains that the Obama policy of leading from behind is in fact a new, more modest style of American leadership – nuanced diplomacy that sometimes gave the impression that the US was reluctant. Ghattas sees a multipolar world as a “recipe for global gridlock” (p.195) and instead of seeing decline in the Obama administration’s foreign policy sees American “expanding its reach and redefining its role” (p.288). However she is not entirely consistent in this nuanced message about power being redefined simultaneously describing the country as a “superpower on a budget” (p.136) and warning of the dangers of “America seemed to be thinking itself into further decline” (p.166). Towards the end of the book Ghattas writes that she had “reached the end of my own journey” (p.336) which highlights that perhaps the whole experience was a four-year answer to a question as to what US power really is. What makes the book so interesting is that both Ghattas and Clinton make for the perfect prism through which to learn more about such an important debate.


Originally reviewed for International Affairs


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