Conspiracy theories


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


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.

Book review: Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World

Dear Madam President is both a reflection on Palmieri’s role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and a call to arms for women in leadership. The book is specifically for the woman who will be the first woman president, but her words really speak to women in any leadership role. Heck, they speak to any woman.

The book is an easy read, divided into nine chapter or exhortations. Through them Palmieri describes situations that happened during the Clinton campaign or during a visit with Elizabeth Edwards and then illuminates the lessons to be learned from them. She talks directly to the future woman president of the United States—Madam President. (She originally notes that Madam seems to define a woman by her attachment to a man but ends up using the title because frankly there is no neutral title for a woman that doesn’t denote her relationship with a man. Sigh.)

She acknowledges the failures that Hillary’s advisors (which includes herself) made in the campaign and their wrong assumptions. They advised her to run like a man, to run as a presidential candidate, not the potential first woman president. This was a mistake. Hillary should have embraced being the first woman president and forged her own model of leadership.

Palmieri recognizes that currently the only model for a person in power to follow is male. And that this needs to change.

As she explained this point and raised the fact that women have imitated male models in the workforce, I thought back to the 1980s, when middle class white women entered the workforce in large numbers. The clothing (remember the huge shoulder pads and mannish look to business attire?), the attitude, the mannerism all screamed women trying to be men.

Women had to prove that they belonged by proving that they were tough enough. They were just like the men, whose ranks they were fighting to enter. They had to embrace the male work style.

In hindsight this was a huge disservice to women, men, and the work world. We are still paying the price and trying to escape this male model.

Palmieri calls for a new way, a new model of leadership. What would it be like to lead like a woman?

She also recognizes in hindsight the refusal or inability of Hillary’s advisors to acknowledge the deep misogyny in the US. People disliked Hillary. They were OK with voting for a woman, they insisted, but not that woman. They didn’t trust her.

But suddenly they were OK with Hillary when she conceded the race. Palmieri surmised (rightly, I think) that people were not comfortable with Hillary—with a woman—being in a position of power. But as soon as she conceded, suddenly she stepped back into a traditional role played by women. Then she was OK.

The problem was clearly that the anti-Hillary folks didn’t trust Hillary because she was an “intelligent, capable, ambitious woman in a position of power.” (page 50) As such, she “represented an existential threat to the proper order of things.” (pages 54-55)

Palmieri mentions that Hillary’s advisors also didn’t understand the level of frustration in the population at large and how it was playing out in the populous movements in the campaigns. But the Clintons did. Palmieri mentions a book that the Clintons read and discussed, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements—a book from the 1950s. It sounds eerily relevant to today (and a must read).

Palmieri’s lessons and advice to the future Madam President (and women in general) are good. Some lines jumped off of the page and felt like Palmieri was speaking directly to me. She described my own experiences, insecurities, and problems being a woman in a world that doesn’t value women.

Which things that she writes might speak directly to you?

Book review: The Secretary

The Secretary is a window into past US political and foreign policy history through the lens of a journalist. This journalist, Kim Ghattas, had a unique vantage point: she was part of the press corps that followed Secretary of State Clinton during her tenure (2009-2012).

Ghattas’s own background informed her view of what she saw during the Clinton years at State. Ghattas was born and raised in Lebanon during the war-torn 1980s and 1990s.  She brought to her role the experience of being on the other end of US intervention (or lack of intervention). In The Secretary, Ghattas shares with the reader her progression from a Lebanese resident who wondered why America didn’t just fix things in Lebanon to a US resident who saw the limits of American power.

Ghattas’s perspective of foreign countries toward the US is fascinating and reveals deep contradictions. Other countries see America as a superpower in decline, but also as a country that can do anything. They assume that the US can fix anything, even the problems in their own country. But they bewail the US getting involved in their countries and dictating how their countries should be run. They assume the US has a grand master plan and bemoan the neglect or attention that the US gives them.

It literally does not compute to others that the US does not have a grand master plan, cannot fix their countries’ problems, and doesn’t actually have all countries and all problems on their radar. America, it is believed—even in the face of contradictory evidence or explanation—can fix the problems in Iraq or bring peace to the Middle East.

In fact, the US is often reacting to events on a day-to-day basis, though Clinton and the Obama administration attempted to change this a bit by focusing on developing relationships. Clinton logged over a million miles during her tenure, zipping around the globe to fix and deepen relationships—everywhere. This strategy seems so basic that it also seems bizarre that few follow it.

Ghattas also describes Clinton’s approach to developing relationships. Again, another no brainer: start by connecting with people before sitting down to conduct business. In The Secretary, Clinton clearly has the social skills to connect with people on a deep level, putting them at ease (or not if the situation calls for it) and developing a rapport that she could call on in times of crisis. It is much easier to secure desired outcomes if you already have a personal relationship.

Although Clinton and the Obama administration worked to become more involved and to deepen relationships, at the same time, they were trying to empower other countries. It was less about telling others what to do than letting them figure things out on their own. Rather than solving their problems, the US wanted them to solve their own problems. “It was time for other countries, other regions, to take ownership of their problems. For decades, the first reaction of people around the world had been to ask what America was planning. Now America wanted first to know what the rest of the world had in mind, and second, what they were willing to contribute to that plan.” (page 255)

And there were clearly growing pains. Countries weren’t used to thinking like that. America should fix their problems. Now, it seems, with the Trump administration in retreat, that other countries are trying to figure out how to act on their own to solve problems in the international community.

Some things surprised me in the book. I did not realize how badly the Bush administration downplayed State and foreign service. Clinton’s goal was to rehabilitate the US reputation in the world. (In an odd way, this brought me comfort, knowing that the next administration would—and presumably could—rehabilitate America’s standing in the world following the Trump administration.) Clinton and Obama wanted to make sure that the US was a player on the world stage. It was not abdicating its role in the world to others.

Ghattas talks about when people call for the US to retreat from the world, they aren’t thinking through the consequences of the US doing that. Doing so leaves a power vacuum that others would be happy to fill. What are the possible consequences?

I would expand on this observation. When the Trump administration and followers call for the US to retreat from the world stage, they are not thinking through the consequences. Just because you go home does not mean that problems go away. Decisions are still being made. Actions are being taken. But you are no longer at the table having a say in it. If you retreat, you have less control over things that will affect you: militarily, foreign policy-wise, trade-wise. (The same can be said about the UK retreating from the EU. It will leave them less powerful because they will no longer have a voice over things that affect them.)

I was surprised by observations about events that I did not realize or know about. Clinton was skewered by how events unfolded in Libya, that diplomats were left unprotected. In passing, Ghattas mentions that originally US embassy diplomats were not allowed to leave Tripoli by order of Gaddafi—a reminder that not all is how it seems.

Concerning our ongoing problematic relationship with Pakistan and its cooperation (or lack of it) in the Afghanistan war, Ghattas brings up a point that puts it all in perspective. She explains our history with Pakistan and their reliance over the decades on the aid that we provide them. The aid stopped before and the US attention drifted away from Pakistan. The US simply wasn’t interested in Pakistan and/or Pakistan wasn’t strategic to US interests. If you are Pakistan and you want to maintain a relationship with the US (= continued aid and continued US interest), what do you do?

An aside from Ghattas suggests that you do not fix things in your country that would bring an end to the Afghanistan war. If the war ends, then the US leaves the area and walks away from a relationship with you. Why then would Pakistan want to stamp out the militants in its territory that fight against the US in Afghanistan? That could mean an end to the war and an end to a relationship with (and aid from) the US.

I was dismayed by the US retreat that I was not aware of—and how the US sought to reconnect. World expos used to be a big event. I know of historic ones: the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. But I hadn’t connected the historical with the current ones; world’s fairs are still being held.

Ghattas’s description of the one in Shanghai in 2010 broke my heart. In the 1990s, the US decided that world’s fairs were a waste of time and money. The US retreated from the world stage. Actually, the fairs are a chance to showcase the US, our history, and our values. The US decided to stop using taxpayer money and instead would finance our appearance at these expos with company money. We asked companies to represent the US in world fairs. Rather than an opportunity to display our values and to broadcast the view of the US that we wanted others to see, we let businesses advertise for themselves. The US = capitalism, capitalism = the US. We are missing a huge opportunity to project how we want others to view us.

The book offers a good view into how Clinton operates and her incredible knowledge and skills. She came to the role with a lot of experience and knowledge, some relationships with foreign leaders already forged as a First Lady and Senator. While her husband’s appetite for knowledge is well documented, Hillary’s is just as voracious. She routinely devoured detailed documents about countries and situations that the State Department compiled for her. And wanted more. She wanted the details and to understand the big picture so she could easily understand and move between situations as they arose with a deep understanding of history and cultures. She relied on experts and looked to others to supplement and enrich her knowledge. We clearly lost a great deal with her forced retirement from politics.

The Secretary contains lots of tidbits about other cultures, countries, and histories, interspersed with descriptions of State travels to different sites. The pace at which Clinton traveled sounds bone-wearily exhausting to her staff and the press that accompanied her. Ghattas brings us along to important visits and events, from the Arab Spring to the world expo in China to a historic visit to Myanmar. The Secretary is a worthy read for understanding US foreign policy, world events, and the limitations and power of the US. We see how the US operated on the world stage in the first Obama administration through the eyes of a non-US native. The results are fascinating.