In Hillary Clinton's new book, "Hard Choices," the former U.S. Secretary of State paves the way for a possible presidential campaign in 2016 by emphasizing some of her foreign policy differences with the Barack Obama administration on Russia, Syria and Egypt that proved to be prescient.
Though she describes how she and Obama became good friends and had a “shared agenda that would guide American foreign policy for years to come” when she took the job in 2009, her account of their subsequent disagreements makes some of the administration's positions seem naive in hindsight.
On Russia, Clinton goes out of her way to emphasize that she was an early critic of President Vladimir Putin and that her suspicions of him have been proven accurate. Though the book has been in galleys for months, she made sure to include a discussion on Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, calling the Ukraine crisis the “latest reminder of Putin’s long-standing aims” and his “true agenda,” which is to “re-Sovietize” Russia’s periphery.
Clinton says that she warned Obama about Putin’s ambitions in a memo she prepared when she left the State Department in January 2013. She wrote that Putin represented a danger “to his neighbors and the global order,” cautioning that “difficult days lay ahead and that our relationship with Moscow would likely get worse before it got better.”
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She encouraged Obama to push pause on the much-discussed reset of the U.S.-Russia relationship the president had emphasized at the start of his administration: “Don’t appear too eager to work together. Don’t flatter Putin with high-level attention… Strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.” She says that Obama initially ignored her advice to decline Putin’s invitation for a presidential-level summit in Moscow, though he finally came around to her view after Snowden was given asylum in Russia that summer.
Clinton concludes that Putin remains fixated on “reclaiming the Soviet Empire and crushing domestic dissent.”
She also recalls some interesting conversations with the Russian strongman, who once challenged her and husband Bill to accompany him on a trip to tag polar bears in the Arctic. Another time, Putin told her a dramatic story about his father’s service in World War II: When Putin father’s came home from the front lines, he saw a pile of bodies stacked in the street outside his apartment building, which were being loaded into a flatbed truck by some men. When the elder Putin recognized his wife’s body by her shoes, he argued with the men, picked her up and realized she was still alive, nursing her back to health. Eight years later, their son Vladimir was born.
As for China, Clinton repeatedly emphasizes her efforts to promote human rights and condemn censorship, sometimes unnerving Chinese officials. “It’s not a secret that the epicenter of the antidemocratic movement in Asia is China,” she writes while noting the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to an imprisoned Chinese human rights activist. She recalls raising the Tibet issue with former president Jiang Zemin at a state dinner in 1997; and remembers that he was not pleased and questioned why Americans advocated for those “necromancers,” and insisted that Tibetans were “victims of religion” who had been freed from feudalism.
She says that she became concerned about China’s new aggressive posture in 2009, “emboldened by the financial crisis of 2008 that weakened the U.S. economy" and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were sapping American resources. At a summit in Beijing in May 2010, she became startled when a Chinese admiral stood up and “launched into an angry rant accusing the United States of trying to encircle China and suppress its rise.”
Two years later, when blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and contacted the American Embassy, Clinton saw how angry the Chinese were at what they perceived as American interference in their internal affairs. During the negotiations over Chen, a Chinese diplomat barked at Clinton’s subordinate, “I’ll tell you how to solve this, turn Chen over to us immediately,” before launching into a 30-minute “diatribe” about Chinese sovereignty and dignity.
Clinton also tries to put some space between her and one of the Obama administration’s most controversial programs -- drone strikes on terrorist havens, which have often resulted in civilian casualties. Though she says she supported particular strikes, she disagreed with others, once getting into a “shouting match” with her “good friend” former CIA director Leon Panetta, over one proposed strike.
Syria and Egypt
On Syria and Egypt, Clinton describes her positions on the turmoil in those countries in a way that makes her seem farsighted. When the uprising against longtime president Hosni Mubarak was capturing the hearts and minds of the White House, she cautioned that forcing the strongman from power could lead “to a lengthy period of dangerous disorder or by a successor government no more democratic.” After her diplomat publicly stated that Mubarak should not resign immediately, Obama called Clinton angrily to express his unhappiness about the mixed messages the administration was sending.
But Clinton felt somewhat vindicated when she visited Cairo a month after Mubarak’s departure and found a disorganized group of activists wandering Tahrir Square. “I came away worried that they would end up handing the country to the Muslim Brotherhood or the military by default, which in the end is exactly what happened.”
As for Syria, Clinton says that the White House overruled her push to start arming and training moderate Syrian rebels, with President Obama once asking her point-blank whether the U.S. had ever backed an insurgency that could be considered a success. After losing that debate, she threw herself into diplomatic efforts to isolate and pressure the Syrian regime. But as the years went on, she says that American efforts to help local opposition groups reopen schools and rebuild homes were “Band-Aids” while the conflict raged on.
By the time she departed, Clinton says that tens of thousands of Syrians had been killed, darkly quoting former UN chief Kofi Annan’s statement that “History is a somber judge.”