Book review: The Secretary, by Kim Ghattas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 4:08pm

The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power

by Kim Ghattas

Times Books

This is not an up-close-and-personal account of Hillary Clinton's travels as US secretary of state. Instead, The Secretary is a well-documented, neatly written account of American foreign policy during the first four years of President Barack Obama's administration.

Written by BBC journalist Kim Ghattas, who travelled as part of Clinton's press entourage, it's especially good on Middle East policy: the writer is Lebanese, and has a solid, first-hand understanding of the political situation in the region.

Clinton herself is observed with a journalistic objectivity, and Ghattas carefully avoids straying from politics into her private life, although she does provide facts about her working methods.

The book is augmented by Ghattas' own hopes and fears for her native Lebanon and the Middle East, and these are seamlessly integrated into the text.

During the years 2008 to 2012, Clinton travelled more than a million miles and visited more than 100 countries as secretary of state. Her primary mission was to restore faith in American foreign policy, which had been tarnished by the arrogance and inconsistencies of George W. Bush's administration.

Along the way, as Ghattas correctly notes, Clinton went from being a relatively unloved politician reviled by the right wing to one who was respected by the public and politicians of all stripes.

Clinton comes over as an attractive personality in Ghattas' description. A skilled politician, she is nonetheless compassionate, and committed to causes such as women's rights. The writer is impressed by her personal touch, noting that her meetings with foreign dignitaries always involved chats about family matters before negotiations started.

As secretary of state, Clinton proved relatively forthright in her political statements, an attribute that sometimes caused mild panic in government offices.

Ghattas also notes that Clinton made it clear she was in the service of President Obama, in spite of the fact that she took the state secretary job after an acrimonious competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, something she dearly wanted to win.

Foreign policy is a fluid and shifting arena, and results are often incremental. Clinton wisely did not hitch herself to a single issue, and avoided making too many promises, especially as far as the Middle East was concerned.

Although she was a voracious consumer of detailed policy, Clinton kept her aims relatively general, realising her main objective should be to repair the damage of the Bush years, Ghattas writes.