Book Review: 'The Secretary: A Journey From Beirut to the Heart of American Power' by Kim Ghattas
Review by Susan Grigsby
Hillary Clinton made an immediate impact on the federal workers toiling away at what is known as the Building. From the moment she stepped into the lobby of the State Department and was greeted as a rock star, she quickly sought to utilize the strengths of all its occupants. And it wasn't only lip service that she offered. Her first trip was to be to Asia. Unlike the past two Secretaries of State, she reached out to the men and women in Room 6205:
The Asia experts, the bureau deputies, the desk directors for each country on the itinerary were taken aback when they were asked to contribute ideas for the agenda and schedule of the trip. Where should Clinton hold a town hall in Seoul? Who should she meet in Tokyo? Which television show was most popular in Indonesia? No one had consulted them for a while, it seemed.
They were probably surprised that she meant what she said to them that day in January 2009. They would not be the last to realize that Hillary Clinton usually did mean what she said.
In The Secretary: A Journey From Beirut to the Heart of American Power, Kim Ghattas explores the limits and the exercise of American Power, using the Secretary of State as her vehicle. Logging 300,000 miles within the Bubble that surrounds SOS Hillary Clinton, and interviewing her one-on-one 18 different times, she takes us along on the trip.
Kim Ghattas is the State Department Correspondent for BBC news. Before moving to DC to take that position in 2008, she lived in Beirut where she was the Middle East correspondent for BBC and the Financial Times.
Child of a Dutch mother and Lebanese father, she grew up in civil war torn Lebanon, at the crossroads of the Christian and Muslim areas of Beirut. Like many others in the Middle East she believed that "America was omnipotent; its power knew no bounds." Her education in the limits of American power is woven into her description of her travels with Hillary Clinton.
Travel as a State Department correspondent is not as glamorous as that enjoyed by White House correspondents (most of whom fly on separate aircraft from the President), however, the reporters do get to spend time with the Secretary as she occasionally wanders back to the press to chat during flights. Being on the same plane, they also get access to staff members. And that access is worth more to them than comfort.
The plane itself, although equipped with all that the Secretary needed to communicate with the Building and the White House, did leave a little to be desired by members of media. Seating arrangements were made by lottery:
This was a trip with no tickets, no boarding passes, and no assigned seating. It offered many luxuries: someone else sorted out your visas, you never had to go through passport control anywhere, your luggage was delivered straight to your hotel, and you mingled in a VIP lounge with top American officials who loved to talk. But the trip also had its downsides: the traveling press was squeezed in the back of the secretary’s reconfigured, no-frills plane. The section had eight comfortable business-size seats and twelve cramped coach seats. Some of the business seats went to Diplomatic Security agents and to Caroline, Ashley, and Nick. We got whatever seats were left. The lotteries took place only once, at the start of each trip, and they could get surprisingly emotional, especially when there were only six “good” seats.
The logisitics of the travel take some space in the book. I find those peeks behind the curtain to be fascinating (How do they feed everybody? They bring all food from the states to make sure that no one picks up a food borne illness by buying from local sources as they travel) The book is rich in the details that create a sense of place and people.
Clinton is indefatigable, traveling a million miles during her four year tenure. She works hard at establishing and retaining personal relationships with her counterparts and heads of state around the world. And this book follows her as she starts in Japan, tours Asia, the DMZ, Indonesia, Korea and signs the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) which opens the way for greater American participation in economic and political issues of the area.
The United States was going to latch on to what was already there and create new initiatives and treaties everywhere— a large sticky web of diplomacy. TAC was just the beginning.
No longer was America willing to go it alone. Partnerships were to be the keystone of the Obama foreign policy.
A richly textured background is provided for the visits to the Middle East as one would expect when reading a story written by one who knows the area well. Hillary Clinton tries, without success to get the Israelis to stop building new settlements and the Palestinians to get to the bargaining table. Which is not a real surprise to anyone.
Ghattas covers the Wikileaks scandal, and the cleanup, as well as the Arab Spring and the different responses America offered to different nations. Calling for Mubarak to step down while standing on the sidelines in Syria. Throughout, Ghattas learns more about what the United States is actually capable of doing and willing to do on the world stage. It is not at all simple, easy or straightforward.
Of all the trips, the one that most affected me was Clinton's visit to Burma where she met with Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. But it was the description of the new capital city, Nay Pyi Taw, built by the military rulers that dropped my jaw.
Our motorcade, usually an overwhelming sight in any city, could do nothing to fill the twenty-lane highway in the government zone of the city. The annoyance of having a foreign dignitary closing off streets meant nothing in this oversized ghost town that appeared completely depopulated. After we drove past a few cars and motorcycles near our hotel, there was not a vehicle or a person in sight anymore as we approached the presidential palace. We entered the compound through the golden gates, across a bridge over what looked like a moat, and pulled up outside the palace— a massive marble building that could have been the work of Donald Trump.
I did have to stop and look it up on Google Earth, and while there are no Street Views, there are photos and an empty highway of twenty lanes that is a marvel to anyone who has had to drive the Santa Ana Freeway through Los Angeles.
Ghattas does a good job of condensing what Clinton accomplished in four years even if she didn't bring peace between Israel and Palestine or prevent Iran from working on a nuclear weapon. What she did may turn out to have been more important.
Clinton saw this as the real achievement of her years as secretary of state and of the Obama administration— working with the United States had once again become desirable. There would still be clashes of interest; Washington would continue to be criticized; its policies would still frustrate and anger many— it is after all the fate of every superpower. But America was once more a sought-after partner.
Clinton’s key contribution is therefore more intangible but, if pursued, longer lasting— repositioning America as a leader in a changed world, a palatable global chairman of the board who can help navigate the coming crises, from climate change, to further economic turmoil, to demographic explosions. As part of the Obama administration’s effort to redefine American leadership, Clinton became the first secretary of state to methodically implement the concept of smart power. She institutionalized this approach in the Building: budgets now include funds for gender issues, foreign service officers are embedded at the Pentagon, economic statecraft is part of the diplomatic brief. Clinton was determined to make sure her work would not be undone after her departure and planned to invest a lot of her time following up and providing counsel to her successor
Kim Ghattas' reporting is naturally filtered through the lens of her own past. She complains that the Americans bore too easily, and leave too quickly.
Eventually, before anything was really fixed in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and sometimes before the real problems had even started, Americans had moved on, they had other problems to tend to.
Americans often seemed to dole out time like accountants: the minute something didn’t work, they gave up and tried something else.
Then she reports without ever seeming to grasp the implications, of the 40,000 dead Americans in South Korea or the 28,500 that still remain to enforce the armistice with North Korea that was signed sixty years ago.
That is a minor quibble, though. Overall she brings a refreshing slant and a clarity to a foreign policy that is all written in shades of gray.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.