on February 12, 2013
There are at least two aspects of this book by BBC correspondent Kim Ghattas that make it particularly interesting. It's almost as if two books coexist between its covers, one written by an insider and the other by an outsider. Ghattas, born in Lebanon, covered the US State Department while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, so The Secretary has a well-informed insider view of Clinton and the way she works. Ghattas spent a lot of time traveling around the world with Clinton and her staff, and what Ghattas was able to observe eventually convinced her that Hillary's intelligent and engaging style of diplomacy was re-positioning America's leadership role in ways that will help it stay effective and relevant in our rapidly changing world.
Ghattas witnessed major world events firsthand and her behind the scenes perspective make a fascinating history of the last few years. Pivotal developments she recounts in this book include the Arab Spring, the opening of Burma, the release of the Wikileaks documents, and the fallout from the Japanese earthquake. The September 11, 2012 attack on the US embassy in Libya occurred too late to be included, but it's not the events themselves that give structure to The Secretary, it's Ghattas's status as an outsider. Ghattas grew up in war torn Beirut and her evolving outsider observations, insights, and opinions about America's superpower status and what America could and should do in the world drive the narrative and make The Secretary much more fascinating than even a portrait of Hillary Clinton could be.
This book poses a problem. How do you review a book that strays from its purported topic? The title of the book leads the reader to expect a portrait of Hillary Clinton, with a look at how she managed her duties as US Secretary of State. In reality, Hillary is almost a minor character in this book. Ghattas really delivers a look at US foreign policy, including some insights on the middle-east and South Asia, along with some observations on how Hillary Clinton performed as Secretary of State.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* Ghattas is at her best describing her own experiences in growing up in the middle east. She relates her youthful impressions of the United States. As an example, the citizens of Lebanon viewed the US as some omnipotent force on the planet, and were surprised and discouraged when the limits of US power became evident. A good lesson for modern America.
* From her vantage point as a reporter, Ghattas relates several insights on how the US is viewed in the world. For example, I had never quite realized how easy the US Government was to manipulate into "taking a position". Ghattas relates a remarkable story of how foreign reporters would ask a question at a State Department briefing just to get something on the record of a US position. Then in the home country, the reporter could relate details of a "major US announcement".
* As a reporter traveling with Ms. Clinton on an overseas visit, Ghattas is able to capture the hectic pace that such a trip involves. Transporting the US Secretary of State, and her staff, to six countries in ten days is an incredible logistical problem, especially when security concerns and the ongoing demands of the office are considered. And while we like to think of US (or any nation's foreign policy) as a carefully thought out position, at least some of it is conceived "on the fly". Any business traveler who has redone a presentation while on the plane to the customer's facility will recognize the drill.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* While Ghattas does relate first-person experiences with Hillary, much of the material is based on events that happened when Ghattas was literally miles away. Fair enough, reporters do not get to accompany US cabinet secretaries in many of their official duties. The problem is that Ghattas uses the same voice in describing both direct encounters as those related by others. It is not easy to tell the difference, unless it is related in the context of the narrative.
* I found quite a bit of the book to be a repeat of information that I had read previously. I am an avid reader of news magazines such as The Economist, and a lot of the content Ghattas related was familiar to me. I am not in any way suggesting Ghattas has plagiarized any material, just that I had read previous descriptions of the same events.
* The book was a tough read. Ghattas writes in a easily read style, but I found a large portion of the content to be trivial, repetitive and just tedious. I am really not all that interested in the cookies served on the Secretary of State's airplane, or what time the reporters on a trip had breakfast.
=== Summary ===
If you are attracted to the title, as I was, the book is a major disappointment. The book is not an especially intimate portrait of Hillary Clinton, and offers few insights into her style of management and negotiation as Secretary of State. Much of the book is either Ghattas' recollections of previous events, or a retelling of modern history. With a little bit of additional material, the book has the potential to be a reasonable review of parts of US Foreign Policy in the last 15 years.
on June 9, 2015
I chose this book because I wanted to learn about what a Secretary of State does and I was curious about these years for Hillary Clinton. I learned about those things, but much more. The author's viewpoint (she grew up in war-torn Lebanon) was more objective than a biography might usually be. She was also very knowledgeable and skilled at describing the history and political situation in each of the key areas, such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria. The reader can therefore understand what Clinton was trying to do and why that was important, the obstacles, etc. I also now admire Clinton's determination and persistence to get a job done, understand her interpersonal skill in the international arena, and admire her unflagging energy.
on August 10, 2013
This is an extremely insightful book on America's role as a superpower. What makes it so is the author's childhood in Beirut during Lebanon's devastating Civil War. All of the adults in her world felt angry and betrayed, convinced the United States had given Assad a green light in Lebanon in return for his support of the US invasion to remove Saddam from Kuwait. Only at the end of her four years covering the Secretary of State for the BBC does Ghattas understand the limits of US power sufficiently to question the foreign policy decision makers of the 1990s and realize that Lebanon was barely a blip on the US radar at that time, not a conspiracy decision with Syria.
It is her middle Eastern perspective that makes this book far more than the story of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Ghattas obviously found her more open and candid in private interviews than the public image often portrays and came to respect her for her long range goals of moving toward cooperation with regional leaders -- more a global chairman of the board than a superpower dictator. The fact that it required four years of intense personal interaction for an intelligent Lebanese journalist to fully understand US inability to wave a magic wand and solve problems across the world is discouraging, but it illustrates the need for patience and pragmatism in US foreign policy. The strongest chapter in this book is near the end, exploring the complexity of the current civil war in Syria. Ghattas does an excellent job of analyzing something few Americans understand -- the radical differences between the Arab revolts in Tunisa, Egypt, Lybia and Syria.
on May 30, 2015
n interesting book because it left me understanding what I had already known but hadn't thought much about, which is that the role of the US in the world is becoming less powerful. As for Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State--she certainly was hard working, and compared to any other Presidential candidate she has an enormous amount of foreign policy experience. Whether she was effective is another questions. While holding town meetings for women in different countries is intriguing and nice, I am not sure that it does much for anyone. The perspective of the author as a Lebanese is also interesting and adds to the book.
on April 21, 2015
I am not sure I got what I wanted when I bought this book. I was hoping to come out of it with a clear idea of whether I'd vote for Hillary, if she ran. (She ended up announcing that she is running for president while I was reading the book.) I have even more admiration and respect for her intelligence and her diligence; I am personally exhausted just thinking of the travel and all she accomplished. So I do see Hillary more favorably after reading this book.
Most importantly, the book presents an extraordinary insight and understanding about what it takes to really be the Secretary of State in the USA. Through the unique lens of the eyes of this author, with her own incredible background, the complex (and maddening) role the USA plays internationally is also abundantly clear and well explained.
Not a quick read, not a book to skim through... but worth the time, if for no other reason but to contemplate my role in the world as a citizen of the USA.
This book about Hillary Clinton's service as Secretary of State is really an education on the complexities of American foreign policy throughout the globe. Kim Ghattas is a Lebanese-born woman who rises through her war-torn country to become the State Department Correspondent for BBC news; here she seeks answers to pivotal questions about just how much can America as the number one world power accomplish - or not! Ms. Ghattas discovers that these multifaceted problems do not enable simple responses; and even if they did, we are invited to understand that perhaps we are not meant to run the world but to be there for others, support, challenge, oppose at times, all in the process of weaving that international tapestry of diplomacy, cooperation, and more. Hillary doesn't back up many times when being challenged by the press overseas as to why America doesn't do this or that - in Pakistan she robustly says to Pakistan leaders that you don't have to take our money since you object to our lack of doing what you want. Bravo to her for this as she challenges the approach that Pakistan historically has held between the West and its neighboring Afghan and Taliban powerful leaders. She continues to travel through the Middle East and addresses the differences in the rising Arab Spring crisis in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, explaining and supporting the air strikes in Libya that led to a successful end of conflict but which have yet to bear fruit in civil war-torn Syria. Overall, this is a fascinating look at the inside world of a woman who may not have a significant event in her repertoire but who clearly has been a significantly forceful advocate of healing America's tarnished image overseas. Very nicely done and very worthwhile reading whether one knows much or little about American foreign policy.
on March 14, 2013
Hillary Clnton 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.
on June 15, 2014
Mrs Ghattas knows how to explain complex political issues with clarity.Written for the non- specialist-in politics, just like me. She seems to be objective in describing Mrs Clinton's major contribution in establishing solid rapports with Heads of states. I am not american citizen; I am not much interested in politics, being prejudiced to politicains motives and intentions. I must say I bought this book because of so much negative publicity about H. Clinton possibly pursuing canditature for the next presidency. Mrs Ghattas's sharing of how it is like to accompany the Secretary of State through endless visits to prominent world decision makers, I am impressed by this book ; I am also very impressed by Hilary R.Clinton. she is a woman of great dedication and of substance. I highly recommend this book. A pleasure to read.
on December 24, 2013
Having never heard of Kim Ghattas, or perhaps I just don't pay attention when I listen to the BBC news daily, but having an interest in Hillary Clinton's term as Secretary of State, I looked forward to an interweaving of two women's stories: one a seemingly interesting hybrid out of war-torn Lebanon; the other a seemingly interesting hybrid out of suburban Chicago. Neither proved very interesting in this account. Having read many sources about Hillary Clinton, the book added not at all to an understanding of Ms. Clinton nor her tenure as Secretary of State.
The book is larded with canned descriptions in the simplest terms of this or that situation in whatever country the Secretary's plane happens to be parked on any given day, or should I say any "news cycle" as diurnal and nocturnal have ceased to have any meaning in the repetitious banalities conveyed by corporate news sources on a 24/7 basis, most of the "information" based on official statements and media releases. Meetings, meetings, meetings, the Secretary never stops taking meetings, to little apparent result, although we do learn she likes to use a stapler.
I admit this is an ambitious way to approach writing a book, but in the end it is neither about Ms. Ghattas nor Secretary Clinton. Occasionally, Ms. Ghattas is overly impressed with her position and the situations in which she finds herself--who wouldn't be?--but there is so little insight into US foreign policy or any strongly stated views about how the US deploys its power that it becomes a hum-drum diary of relentless travel. We never arrive anywhere near the "heart of American power" as the subtitle has it, nor is our confidence in the foreign reporting capabilities of BBC correspondents enhanced to any great degree (a view validated by daily listening to the BBC news, see above). Since I doubted my own judgement in this, I tuned in to some interviews with Ms. Ghattas on internet videos and found there wasn't much more insight there, either. Ms. Ghattas seems grateful to be constantly spun by the master spinner, Hillary Clinton. Too bad, as her own background brought to the fore more strongly would have made for a more interesting book and perhaps given us more useful insights.
The Benghazi disaster leading to the assassination of Ambassador Chris Stevens is summarily dealt with on page 335. A few sentences suffice to dismiss the event as "the price to pay for expeditionary diplomacy" (whatever that is), whereas anyone with half a brain sees this as symptomatic of neophyte expeditionary political skills honed in the "cauldron" of corporate network news shows. Hillary Clinton's questionable performance before a Congressional committee investigating the matter is never mentioned, nor any firm views stated. Ms. Ghattas several times refers to her job as to "ask tough questions" and "grill" State Department officials, but like most corporate journalists the questions are about as probing as a turkey thermometer. The astounding opening of Burma and Hillary's meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi is reduced to some laughing and chit chat between identically-dressed women. Both, according to Ms. Ghattas, had "met their match". One would expect to find rare birds in a remote and unexplored country, but one would also expect to find expert birdwatchers developing useful field notes.
Were there some framing themes on which to hang the story this would have been a much better book, but I don't believe the fault is entirely Ms. Ghattas's. Despite her mentions of many advocates in the publishing industry and lots of smart friends, Ms. Ghattas's story is marginalized no doubt because Hillary is the loss-leader for this merchandise. There is a bibliography included, mostly of run-of-the-mill books by journalists like Fareed Zakaria and a few academics, but there is little evidence that Ms. Ghattas has made use of her fluent French and Arabic to probe non-English sources, and distance herself from the echo chamber of official Washington, especially as these skills would give her access to interesting sources throughout the middle east. Statements such as the "Obama administration has laid the groundwork for continued American leadership into the twenty-first century" are risible. Clinton and Obama "strongly believe" that "smart power" is the only way forward? Statements such as these belie Ms. Ghattas's assertion at the end of the book that the now-resolved contradictions motivating her quest to understand American power lend her a new found judgement about America's role in the world.