Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Mini-Review: “The Secretary” by Kim Ghattas (Times Books)

GhattasK-TheSecretary“A Journey with Hillary Clinton to the New Frontiers of American Power”

This is a tricky book to review. Sad to say, I was disappointed by it. This may have more to do with what I was expecting from the book. I didn’t realise that the subtitle (in bold, above) was rather more literal than I had thought. Here’s the official synopsis:

In November 2008, Hillary Clinton agreed to work for her former rival. As President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, she set out to repair America’s image around the world—and her own. For the following four years, BBC foreign correspondent Kim Ghattas had unparalleled access to Clinton and her entourage, and she weaves a fast-paced, gripping account of life on the road with Clinton in The Secretary.

With the perspective of one who is both an insider and an outsider, Ghattas draws on extensive interviews with Clinton, administration officials, and players in Washington as well as overseas, to paint an intimate and candid portrait of one of the most powerful global politicians. Filled with fresh insights, The Secretary provides a captivating analysis of Clinton’s brand of diplomacy and the Obama administration’s efforts to redefine American power in the twenty-first century.

Populated with a cast of real-life characters, The Secretary tells the story of Clinton’s transformation from popular but polarizing politician to America’s envoy to the world in compelling detail and with all the tension of high stakes diplomacy. From her evolving relationship with President Obama to the drama of WikiLeaks and the turmoil of the Arab Spring, we see Clinton cheerfully boarding her plane at 3 a.m. after no sleep, reading the riot act to the Chinese, and going through her diplomatic checklist before signing on to war in Libya — all the while trying to restore American leadership in a rapidly changing world.

Viewed through Ghattas’s vantage point as a half-Dutch, half-Lebanese citizen who grew up in the crossfire of the Lebanese civil war, The Secretary is also the author’s own journey as she seeks to answer the questions that haunted her childhood. How powerful is America really? And, if it is in decline, who or what will replace it and what will it mean for America and the world?

In general, I found this to be a weak book. I had expected a little bit more about the policy-making processes of Secretary Clinton and her foreign policy team. Strangely, though, and considering its supposed subject, the author seems to have had limited (or just press-gaggle-general) contact with Secretary Clinton. This means the book is very thin on policy, policy-making, diplomacy, etc. I’m confused about what this book was meant to be. It’s a moderately-interesting travelogue, in many ways. It doesn’t delve too deeply into the issues (those closer to Ghattas’s own interests and experiences are, of course, better presented and more eloquently written about). However, to just take my own academic interests as an example, Ghattas’s chapters and sections about US-China were rather bland. Considering the incredible importance of this bilateral relationship, little original material is presented. Despite being with the Clinton team at the Shanghai Expo, Ghattas draws on others’ impressions (e.g. Ezra Klein), and fails to offer much at all beyond a spectator’s view.

I have much higher hopes for HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, and Clinton’s upcoming new autobiography. I think these two titles will provide far more interesting and useful information, analysis and accounts for scholars and also those more casually interested in the making of US foreign policy.

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