Conspiracy theories

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“Logic never gets in the way of a good conspiracy theory.” ~ Hillary Clinton

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Book review: Hard Choices

In Hard Choices, Clinton shares with us her experiences while she was secretary of state during the first Obama term. We learn what was going on behind the scenes in foreign policy crises, the workings of State, and Clinton’s own modus operandi. She gives blow-by-blow accounts of dealings with foreign actors, such as meditating peace negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Morsi-led government in Egypt. In these accounts, she sprinkles human touches—stories of previous visits to countries, long-standing relationships with officials around the world, or her reactions to situations.

I did not realize that Clinton inherited a State Department that was in such disarray and neglected when she became secretary of state in 2009. The Bush administration had neglected State but through much hard work and dedication, the Obama administration under the leadership of Secretary Clinton transformed State and placed diplomacy back squarely in the center stage.

(This oddly enough made me feel better about the present situation where State has been side-lined and downgraded, with career officials leaving in droves. If State had been resurrected once, perhaps it could be again.)

Clinton brought her own style—a very human and pragmatic approach to diplomacy—to her role. Traditionally power was thought of as hard (military) or soft (diplomacy). Clinton added another tool to the toolkit: smart power. “For me,” she states, “smart power meant choosing the right combination of tools—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—for each situation.” (page 33)

How she conducted herself was different too. She focused on human relationships with the leaders she met. Meetings started on the personal level before moving into business and diplomacy. Clinton—a possessor of what I would dub “smart intelligence” akin to smart power—knew that things only get done through relationships. Nurture the relationship and you build bridges for the time in the immediate or distant future that you might need to cross to get things done.

To me, her focus on relationships and the amount that she went out of her way to nurture them was spot on. It reminded me of her husband’s previous focus on the economy. (It’s the economy, stupid.) You could rephrase this motto for her to be “It’s relationships, stupid.”

And she didn’t just focus on relationships with high-ranking officials in foreign countries. When she visited countries, she made a point of arranging meetings with people of the countries where they could ask her questions and engage in a conversation with her.

Hard Choices is a good companion piece to The Secretary, a book written by a journalist who covered Secretary Clinton. The Secretary presents the perspective of a journalist who was born and raised abroad to events in the same time period as that covered in Hard Choices. Naturally, the scope of knowledge is different—Clinton gives more details and background information about events that journalists did not have access to. And sometimes perspectives are different.

Take the 2010 World’s Fair in China. In The Secretary, Kim Ghattas recounts how America was not financially supporting its presence at the fair, a shocking revelation given the opportunity the venue presented to highlight America values to the world. In the end, corporations stepped up to finance our exhibit at the fair. As one would expect, the exhibit was corporation-focused—less on projecting American values than consumerism.

In contrast, Clinton recounts how she was approached in February 2009 about America not participating in the fair—this would be seen as disrespectful by the Chinese who were hosting the world’s fair. Clinton rightfully saw the fair as an opportunity “to project American power and values in Asia.” (page 71) While the two books agreed on the importance of America participating in the world fair, they differed in their interpretation of the outcome: one seeing it as a lost opportunity that projected corporate power and the other seeing it as a saved opportunity that projected American power.

The book takes us through the major foreign policy events of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and even recounts weaknesses and problems that foresaw events that came to pass. Clinton discusses meeting with officials in Myanmar/Burma and future problems involving the Rohingya based on past and then current problems. “The end of Burma’s story is yet to be written, and there are many challenges ahead. Ethnic strife has continued, raising alarms about new human rights abuses. In particular, spasms of mob violence against the Rohingya, an ethnic community of Muslims, rocked the country in 2013 and early 2014. The decision to expel Doctors Without Borders from the area and not to count Rohingyas in the upcoming census brought a barrage of criticism. All this threatened to undermine progress and weaken international support.” (page 125)

At times she turns a blind eye, perhaps out of diplomatic necessity, to reality. She mentions that in November 2009, President Obama was only lukewarmly received in China. As I read her description of his visit to China and his reception by the Chinese, I thought back to my time in China and experience of China as a very hierarchical society based on skin color. Quite possibly there were others things contributing to his weak reception, but racism nagged at my mind as a real possibility.

From Clinton’s descriptions in Hard Choices, I took a shine to Richard Holbrooke who was often sent to fix problems around the world. His focus was on reconciliation. Insurgencies end when those in the insurgency stop. For the insurgency to stop, you have to talk, you have to focus on diplomacy, and you have to give them the opportunity to walk away from the insurgency. In a nod to cold war spycraft, she recounts Richard as observing that “In every war of this sort, there is always a window for people who want to come in from the cold.” (page 151) I smiled as I thought of the classic movie The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I also learned of events and incidents that I was completely ignorant of. Clinton describes the diplomacy needed in the OAS to prevent the re-admittance of Cuba. (Cuba needed to first fix the issues that led to its banishment in 1962.)

As I read about diplomacy surrounding Columbia, I realized that I hadn’t heard anything about the successes in Columbia—the last I knew of Columbia was its failed state status as a drug country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

I was surprised by a statistic concerning Mexico, reading it twice. Mexico is routinely depicted as a country bedeviled by drug-related violence. But what caught my eye was the fact that 90% of weapons used by cartels come from the US. I was stunned. 90%. Following the lapse of the 1994 ban on assault weapons in 2004, a flood of arms crossed the border. Our loose gun laws, killing us here at home, are also responsible for the drug wars killing Mexicans. We cannot be innocent bystanders to the violence and mere consumers of the drugs that fuel the violence. Since we contribute the guns (and consume the drugs), we have a responsibility to help Mexico.

Clinton walks through the Obama administration approach to Africa and describes examples of good countries such as Senegal, Liberia, Kenya, and Botswana and bad countries such as Congo with its civil war, Sudan/South Sudan with its fighting, and Somalia as a failed state.

She crystallizes the problems with China’s involvement in Africa. China’s focus in Africa is on extracting resources it needs to fuel its economic growth and appetites at home. Fair enough. But the manner is what’s troubling. China builds infrastructure in Africa, but uses its own laborers for the projects rather than local laborers. Investment is also a good opportunity to press for reforms, but China has ignored health and development challenges and human rights abuses. This is beyond unfortunate.

Clinton describes the attempt during her tenure for peace in the Middle East. She recounts the challenges with two different leaders of the divided Palestinian state: Hamas in Gaza and Fatah (led by Abbas) in the West Bank. Both have radically different approaches: violent overthrow of Israel vs. nonviolent negotiations. George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, was sent to work on a peace process during a 10-month moratorium on new settlements. Alas, Clinton describes the mad dash rush at the end due to heel-dragging that unsurprisingly led to the collapse of negotiations.

Clinton was in the throes of the Arab Spring too. She spoke out in January 2011 about long-needed reforms in the Middle East. With high unemployment, poverty, and young populations, the Middle East was a powder keg ready to blow. As she spoke these words, demonstrations started in Tunisia, which kicked off the Arab Spring.

She describes the religious groups in each country in the region and the geopolitics. She urged caution about removing tyrants—a lesson one would have thought others too would have learned after Iraq. Their removal, especially in places with no organized opposition, leads to a power vacuum. (Syria, Libya, anyone?) And what enters that power vacuum may be worse. (Look at what happened to Egypt.)

I was surprised to learn about the role Oman played in the Iran nuclear deal. The Sultan ended up brokering secret talks with Iran. Clinton sets out to describe how this deal came about through a quick history lesson about our involvement in Iran and its uranium enrichment program. She does not discuss other US attempts to curtail Iran’s progress. (Stuxnet, I’m thinking of you here.) Instead, she focuses on the offer that the Sultan of Oman suggests: swap their uranium stockpile for fuel rods to power research reactors that are used to produced isotopes to diagnose and treat disease.

She describes the quagmire that is Syria and the geopolitics that shape the reality on the ground. It was not an easy situation during her tenure. If anything, it is worse now. Sanctions did not work thanks to financing Syria received from Russia and Iran. Trying to get the Russians onboard went nowhere and then the US began exploring arming rebels. (So where is Kerry’s book as the sequel on our official involvement in Syria?)

Of course, no book describing her experiences at State would be complete without information on Libya and Benghazi. As usual, she gives the history and geopolitical backgrounds as well as the current political situations. Context is everything. She gives a measured description of what happened in Benghazi based on her personal experience and information that came out during investigations. She puts human faces on the people killed: the Ambassador, an Information Management Officer, and two CIA officers. She walks through what the department did and how security and communication work.

I was struck by her low-key mention of the cause of the uprising in Benghazi—a trailer about the film Innocence of Muslims by Terry Jones, a provocateur pastor in Florida (the same guy responsible for burning the Koran, which led to killings of Americans in retaliation). The focus of the umpteen investigations, it seemed to me, was on the wrong item. The investigations ignored the consequences of religious bigotry.

After an exhaustive tour of the countries she visited and worked with on issues, she looks toward the future. What issues will impact us? Climate change, jobs, energy, use of technology by activists, and human rights.

She decries the false choice of environment vs. economy in the climate change discussion. With 40% of all people within 60 miles of a coast, climate change will have a massive impact. She describes her first-hand experience of the negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 and how the aim was different than Kyoto. The end goal was a diplomatic agreement signed by all leaders in which all countries had skin in the game. (In contrast, the Kyoto Accords was a treaty that needed to be ratified by parliaments and placed a heavy burden only on rich countries.)

Clinton returns to the topic of China and its emerging role in the world. As China gains prominence on the world stage, many countries look at it as a model of stability and economic growth and see “state capitalism” as a viable alternative. “China had become the leading exponent of an economic model called ‘state capitalism,’ in which state-owned or state-supported companies used public money to dominate markets and advance strategic interests. State capitalism, as well as a range of new forms of protectionism involving barriers behind borders—such as unfair regulations, discrimination against foreign companies, and forced technology transfers—posed a growing threat to the ability of American businesses to compete in key markets.” (page 510) As an example of its negative impact, Clinton highlights the Corning glass company, which fought China over its practice of blocking companies, high tariffs, and stealing intellectual property. Unfortunately, our continued disarray at home (witness the debt ceiling fights that led to talks of a new reserve currency) helped fuel the allure of state capitalism.

She uses the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti to describe best practices for development. Americans erroneously think huge sums of our tax money go to foreign aid, but actually less than 1% of our budget goes towards foreign aid. Why is foreign aid important at all? Because what happens in other countries can threaten us and our strategic interests. Think of it as investing in our future. Both aid and long-term reconstruction and development are important. They are more tools in our toolkit along with diplomacy and defense. Telling countries how to use the aid we give them isn’t the answer though. Each country, each area, each situation is different. For aid and development to be successful it is best to allow country ownership as much as possible.

Clinton touches on what she calls digital diplomacy, which basically refers to training dissidents and organizers to be able to use technology to get around censorship efforts in their country. The problem, she admits, is that these tools and techniques are agnostic. Bad guys as well as good guys can use them.

Her quote of Anne-Marie Slaughter caught my eye. In her Foreign Affairs article, Slaughter explained how heterogeneous societies would benefit in an increasingly networked world—a plug for diversity and multiculturalism at a time when the US is moving in the opposite direction. We’re currently throwing out non-whites and pulling up the drawbridges.

Hard Choices ends with human rights, perhaps fitting given Clinton’s long role working for children’s and women’s rights. Women’s rights, she argues, are human rights. They are also strategic and in our national interests, despite the male officials who poo-poo talk of women’s rights. Where women are abused, not a part of the economies, and denied political participation are the “parts of the world most plagued by instability, conflict, extremism, and poverty.” (page 562) Human rights lead to stability. “History teaches us that when the rights of minorities are secure, societies are more stable and everyone benefits.” (page 575)

Hard Choices is a long but interesting read into a history of US foreign policy from 2009 to 2013. We see successes and failures, near misses and close calls. Pair it with The Secretary to see different perspectives of the same time period and events.

Movie review: Elle (2016)

Elle is a rather disturbing movie that reveals the complexities of life and motivations. The relationships and lives of those in the movie are not neat and tidy. Some aspects about their lives can be envied. Some rejected. Some motivations seem rational. Others not so much. In other words, Elle reveals the lie that the lives of others are perfect. We see the messiness.

Michele is a successful, powerful business woman. She is rather no-nonsense, whether it is dealing with employees, her son, or lovers. But she also seems a bundle of contradictions. A strong woman who won’t take attitude from anyone but submits to violent rape. A strong woman who seeks boundaries with lovers, but then acquiesces. A woman who juggles different lies but then reveals them one evening.

After a violent rape in her house, Michele does not go to the police but rather gets on with her life. The rape ultimately does not seem to bother her. She tells family and friends and that’s that.

Later her reasoning for not reporting the rape is made clear: she did not have a good past with the police. When she was 10 years old, her father committed mass murder. As a child, she was paraded through the media. Now decades later, her elderly father is up for parole again. A TV special about the murder is being aired.

Could the rape have something to do with the mass murder of her father (who is still hated by the public)? Or could it be the hatred felt for her at work? At her company, which produces video games, someone produced a rape scene with her visage on the victim. This scene went viral in the office.

Michele receives text messages from the rapist, as if he is taunting her. Where is he? Who is he?

Michele ultimately discovers that he is someone she knows. And yet she not only does not report him, she goes out of her way to interact with him. After a car accident when no friends or ex-lovers were available to help, she turns to her rapist. She flirts with continuing a consensual rape relationship with him.

In the end, for reasons unknown (or at least unfathomable), she decides against the relationship. She informs him that she will go to the police. He attempts one last rape.

Michele’s motivations and life are not the only ones that are messy. Those of her family and friends are too. Why does her son remain with a woman who is abusive and gave birth to a son who is clearly not his (though he attacks anyone who says otherwise)? Why did the wife of her ex-lover, best friend, and sometime lover reconcile with her and plan on moving in with her? Why did the ultra-religious wife of her ex-rapist/lover accept Michele’s relationship with her husband? Life is messy—not the enviable neat and tidy façade that people typically show us.

Elle is not for the faint of heart—the movie includes some violent scenes. But it offers a fascinating look at the complexities of motivations and relationships. We are not rational but are the product of the past, which shapes our motivations.