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Inside Secretary Clinton’s plane, and not much more

 the secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power by Kim Ghattas (358 pages, $27)

the secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power by Kim Ghattas (358 pages, $27)

By reputation, Hillary Clinton was a great secretary of state. She was indefatigable abroad, loyal to President Obama at home, eloquent and passionate in defining American values, and realistic in applying them to complex realities on the ground. Her approval ratings were sky-high. But the question remains: What did she actually accomplish in the State Department job?

Kim Ghattas, the BBC’s State Department correspondent since 2008, has written an admiring book about Clinton that falls short of answering that question. The Secretary endorses the view that, despite Clinton’s failure to achieve significant diplomatic breakthroughs, she dramatically elevated the United States’s standing around the world and reasserted American leadership through her forceful personality, her devotion to women’s and children’s issues, and her espousal of “smart power.”

The main weakness of this book is its acceptance of this narrative without presenting proof that it has made a real difference for American interests. Ghattas seems naively unaware that previous secretaries of state have also won praise for holding town meetings, doing interviews and engaging in public diplomacy on their trips. The Secretary is much stronger in showing how Clinton gradually mastered a near-impossible job and overcame her initially uneasy relationship with President Obama.

At first, Ghattas writes, Clinton was determined to avoid “all impressions that she had her own agenda or was pushing her own policies on the table.” She stumbled in 2009 by boxing Obama into a hard-line position against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in a misguided attempt to please the White House, the author says. By late 2010, nothing on foreign policy seemed to be going right for the administration anywhere, and Ghattas reports an off-the-record conversation with a high-level official. “We’re holding things together with chewing gum and rubber bands,” the official told her. “It’s bad, really bad.”

But according to the author, Clinton found her footing in 2011 as uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. Not that it was pretty. The secretary is described as reactive, uncertain and careful to reflect the White House’s reluctance to intervene militarily in Libya and Syria or push President Hosni Mubarak to leave Egypt.

But when it came time for international diplomacy to coordinate belated efforts to back the rebels in Libya and Syria, Clinton reverted to her role as best student and best listener in the class, churning through grueling rounds of diplomatic meetings with her checklist of possible compromises to be wrung from dozens of stakeholders in the region, and in Europe and Asia. Armed with her fact-finding, she was able to push for more aggressive policies, in some cases with air strikes and other military aid. The White House in turn placed great faith in her diplomacy, and she and Obama bonded at last, Ghattas maintains.

Ghattas’s book is billed as “the first inside account” about Clinton’s time in office. But unfortunately most of the “inside” story is inside Clinton’s plane as it travels the globe. One of the few state secrets spilled is that State Department correspondents learn little from their hermetic bubble while bilateral and multilateral meetings take place behind closed doors.

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