Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American PowerRandom House, 2016, 432 pp., $28
Anyone looking for a handy guide to foreign-policymaking in President Obama’s administration, and confirmation of Mr. Dooley’s pronouncement that “politics ain’t beanbag,” would do well to pick up a copy of Mark Landler’s “Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the twilight struggle over American Power.” Landler, a former State Department correspondent for the New York Times who has since moved to the White House, tells the tale of the sometimes fraught, sometimes fruitful collaboration of two thoroughly dissimilar personalities yoked together during a transformational period of U.S. diplomacy. He has, he tells us, interviewed 127 persons of consequence, some more than once, including nine interviews with Hillary Clinton, although, strangely, none with Obama. He has also pored over all 55,000 pages of Clinton’s private emails, a glimpse into Clinton’s private thinking that all previous biographers can only envy.(It’s only a glimpse. She seems to have been as guarded in these supposedly private communications as she has become in every other aspect of her public and even her private life.)Given Landler’s front-row seat and his copious sourcing, you’d expect this to be a definitive account. But there are constraints at work that keep the author from achieving all he might have. In this age when senior officials like Bob Gates and Leon Panetta think nothing of peddling their door-stopper memoirs while the President who appointed them is still in office, what is left for an ink-stained wretch to reveal? Then, too, Landler is still the New York Times correspondent at the White House; so there are confidences to be respected, sources to mollify, future access to consider, and punches to be pulled. (More of this below.) What we get is a chatty, anecdotal, sometimes judgmental but more often flattering account of backstage maneuvering from a man who seems willing to nibble at, but reluctant to bite, the several hands that feed him.The Obama whom Landler depicts came to office determined to concentrate foreign-policy decision-making in his own hands. He surrounded himself with a tight group of advisers (that grew tighter over the years), valued loyalty over expertise, and had a preternatural confidence in his own judgment. The anecdotes Landler recounts show the new President thinking in terms of spheres of influence and condominiums of power, and of repairing relations with great powers to focus together on common threats to security and the planet. Some, if not most, of his initial optimism about these things would be tempered by events, but one conviction grew stronger over the years: He would not waste lives and resources on intractable problems in places like Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria where the United States, in his view, had no vital interests. At heart he was a declinist, as Kissinger had been in his day. But unlike Kissinger, who wanted to fight a bloody rearguard action, Obama favored accommodation. The result was a new way of thinking about the country’s place in the world: balance-of-power politics, but all too often with a greater emphasis on balance than power.Clinton, by contrast, liked the old ways of thinking just fine. She emerges from Landler’s account as the second coming of the first George Bush: convinced of the need for U.S. world leadership, willing to intervene militarily in pursuit of American ideals, and doubtful of the transformative power of a more open-handed U.S. diplomacy to persuade authoritarians like Putin and Xi. That accounts for her easy collaboration with the Bush holdover at Defense, Bob Gates, whose views were much like her own. The irony was that unlike the Republican Gates, Clinton saw herself—and was often treated—as a probationary member of the new Democratic Administration.Her eventual goal was, of course, the presidency, but that would move beyond reach if her relationship with Obama broke down. So, she would have to remain loyal to his revolutionary vision (and her loyalty was almost “robotic” writes Landler) without damaging her chances to be his successor—to avoid stealing his spotlight without being lost in his shadow. That meant staying rigidly in line on his signature issues (China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and avoiding outright losers like the Middle East peace process (she thought it “hopeless”), Iraq (she was happy to leave that to Biden), or human rights in China (where our criticisms would only damage relations without bringing positive change). And she would have to do all this while staying true to the Clinton brand. It meant, in a quote from Les Gelb, “taking the position that would leave her least vulnerable.”No special deference would be paid. She would have to fight for the President’s ear along with every one else—but burdened by doubts about her loyalty and resentments still simmering from the 2008 primary campaign. Indeed, her incumbency at State might be described as a five-year campaign to seem more influential than she actually was. But if she was far from all-powerful in this new Administration, she would damn well be visible—and visible in all the right places. And she would make sure not to become a captive of that sinkhole of political ambition, the State Department. She installed a thick layer of loyalists (100 of them, Landler claims) between herself and the nattering nabobs of Foggy Bottom. The private email server had the same purpose: it wasn’t intended to invite comments from the wider bureaucracy; it was intended to screen them out.It was soon clear to old hands that the genuine power would be elsewhere. Early in the Administration, Dennis Ross signed on as Clinton’s man for Iranian issues at State. He thought that Clinton would play the role of foreign-policy czar that James Baker had filled so well for the first George Bush. But Ross discovered, as he tells Landler, that all the real action would be centered on the Oval Office. Within a year, he had decamped to the White House. Then there was the case of career Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, who thought our drone addiction would make it much harder to enlist Pakistan’s cooperation in the battle against al-Qaeda. He demanded a veto over drone strikes, especially the indiscriminate and ethically questionable “signature strikes” targeting groups rather than individuals, only to discover that in this time of perpetual war, the war-makers—and particularly the secret war-makers—were calling the tune. In a conference call with Panetta and Clinton, Clinton supported Munter. Panetta swatted them both aside. Munter resigned. Clinton moved on.There could be no outright capitulation to Obama’s worldview. Clinton let it be known, for example, that she didn’t agree with Obama’s poke-in-the-eye approach to Israel. When the White House asked her to peel off from Obama’s visit to Cairo to absorb Israeli ire that his first Middle East visit would pass it by, she flatly refused. As Obama’s relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu grew poisonous, hers remained cordial.That wasn’t all. At a time when Obama was erasing red lines in Syria, she was cultivating relationships with right-wing U.S. Generals excluded from (and held in contempt by) Obama’s inner circle, especially retired Army General Jack Keane, author of the “surge” in Iraq. It was the fatal attraction of the effete for the hard-boiled—a familiar Washington trope, although usually more on the Right than the Left. But it also reinforced her hard line credentials. She would not be remembered as a great Secretary of State; John Kerry would demonstrate how much potential remained in that job for someone who had given up hopes of the White House. But she left State with the most important goal achieved: She remained a viable presidential candidate, and would eventually receive the one endorsement that counted: Obama’s. Mission accomplished.Or perhaps not. There is a dark side to the story Landler tells that may yet frustrate her ambitions, a series of events that started with the Arab Spring. Libya was going to be her signature accomplishment, the place where power proved its worth. She led the charge in 2011 to convince a reluctant Obama to intervene. Qaddafi’s forces proved more tenacious than expected, but the Libyan dictator was duly dispatched and elections held. Clinton took credit. But there had never been a plan for what to do when Qaddafi was removed. Obama had agreed to intervene, but ruled out any hint of an occupation—one of those seeming compromises that are worse than either of the competing alternatives—and soon enough things went terribly wrong. Clinton had been active in trying to salvage something from the wreckage, but by the time Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Benghazi, she seems to have moved Libya to the list of losing propositions from which it was best to keep her distance. Landler observes there is no record of Clinton being in contact with Ambassador Stevens in this period, although he was someone she liked and had hand-picked for the job. She later said in congressional testimony that 270 ambassadors reported to her; she couldn’t be in contact with every one. Landler doesn’t treat this statement with the contempt it deserves, but does note that her neglect of Stevens is the more remarkable because she was in regular contact with Ambassador Chris Hill in Baghdad. (Not so according to Hill, who wrote in his memoir “Outpost” that he was shuffled off to a Deputy Assistant Secretary.)Landler writes that the White House in particular was inclined to see the attack on the Benghazi consulate that killed Stevens and three other Americans as a spontaneous reaction to a video shown by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo because that fit the prevailing narrative: It couldn’t be al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda was weak and on the run. In the confusion that followed Steven’s murder, and with intense pressure to say something, that was the default line. But it was the White House and CIA narrative, not Clinton’s. She had sniffed it out early on and knew enough to stay away from the Sunday talks shows after Steven’s death, passing Benghazi to Susan Rice, though she and not Rice would be tainted by it.Libya pointed up the weaknesses of both Obama and Clinton. In her case, it was her almost pathological inability to admit fault. When asked about Libya now, Clinton tends to override the questioner. Her face goes rigid; her voice speeds up. She doesn’t have her husband’s gift—or Ronald Reagan’s, for that matter—for charming prevarication. She speaks of the two elections held since Qaddafi was dragged from that drainage ditch as if there is some virtue in an empty procedure to offset the tragedy that turned Libya into a charnel house and refuge for ISIS and al-Qaeda. Perhaps it is understandable that someone who has been personally attacked in the vilest terms for thirty years would refrain from giving more ammunition to her attackers. It seems to be an automatic reflex now—like a twitch she can’t control. It’s on full display in the email controversy, too, which might have been defused early with a deft mea culpa but will now follow her to her grave. Too bad. How much more effective a politician she would be if she could get her mind around the fact that her inability to admit fault is the most telling indictment against her.In Obama’s case, the bitter experience in Libya had reinforced his prejudices. In the aftermath he repented of his decision to intervene. If there was fault to be found (and he, unlike Hillary, was self-confident enough to admit there was fault), it was a momentary lapse in his preternatural self-assurance—the iron-bound confidence of this most inner-directed of Presidents. He’d gone against his better instincts in Libya, and the result had been disaster. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.Instead, as it turned out, he would make the opposite mistake.The place this played out was Syria. Clinton was initially skeptical of arming the anti-Assad rebels, but gradually came to support a plan that had already been generated at the initiative of CIA Director David Petraeus with the help of staffs at State and Defense. Obama was not to be persuaded, though God himself come down from heaven with a shout. He viewed Syria through the prism of Libya. U.S. interests were not directly in play, the nature and/or allegiance of the players was unclear and no one could describe to him, as he often said, what would happen next. (Note to the President: It’s the people who do tell you what will happen next that you have worry about).What did happen next was tragedy on a variety of levels. Obama stands by his decision, and points out—quite accurately—that the polls are with him. It’s a strange contrast. In the aftermath of U.S. intervention in Libya, as that country sank into lawless tribal warfare, Obama regretted his decision; the far greater tragedy of Syria seems only to have reinforced his conclusion that his judgment was correct. Landler describes him at the end of his term as “serene.” It’s reminiscent of the second Bush’s comments about how well he slept as the bodies piled up in Iraq.Obama and Clinton each had their successes, some of them remarkable. His tended to come to fruition after her time: the opening to Cuba, the Iranian nuclear deal, the Paris Accord on climate change, and (perhaps) the Trans-Pacific Partnership—although she had done considerable spadework, especially on Iranian sanctions and the TPP. Her outright success was Burma, although—as Landler describes it—the original initiative and much of the orchestration came from Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and the glory was filched from her in the end by Obama’s trip to Rangoon. As a private citizen, Clinton has felt free to differ more sharply with Obama on Israel and Syria, and to turn her coat on the TPP, the flaws of which Bernie Sanders has made more clearly apparent to her.Read this book for backstage stories: Interested in the pecking order within the tight band of loyalist that surrounded each of the principals? Want to know how Dennis Ross managed to slip a shiv into George Mitchell so adeptly that Ross had become de facto peace-process negotiator before Mitchell knew he was finished? Ready to hear again how the White House staff slammed the Oval Office door before Richard Holbrook could remove his foot? This is the book for you.But don’t expect Landler to take the gloves off when speaking of the young courtiers who surround and cater to the egos of his title. On the contrary, with a couple of exceptions, each gets a flattering profile. Dennis McDonough is “lean,” “ascetic,” and “uncommonly decent,” Ben Rhodes is “an iconoclast” and also “an idealist and romantic,” (not the manipulative jerk he revealed himself to be in David Samuel’s profile in Landler’s own newspaper). At the Department of State, Huma Abedin is “sleek and striking”, whereas Jake Sullivan is “rail thin, with a guileless mien that belied shrewd political instincts.” The lean, the sleek, the striking and the shrewd—it reads like the cast of an afternoon soap opera, and the reader has the sense that Landler is not quite telling all he knows. By contrast, Valarie Jarrett comes in for a single unflattering mention, and Susan Rice looms far smaller in this account than other reports have painted her. One can conclude either than their reputations have been exaggerated, or that neither was a fruitful source for Landler. The latter assumption is probably safer.But a bigger weakness is Landler’s decision to organize his book issue-by-issue rather than chronologically. We’re constantly jumping around in time: now in Bill Clinton’s first term, now in Hillary’s post-State Department career, now in her time at State—and all in the same chapter. We lose all sense of the evolving relationship between the two principals, which is, after all, Landler’s supposed subject. That leaves him to tie it all together in an epilogue where he provides an eloquent and (his editor probably told him) necessary summation of their relationship as it went from mutual wariness to mutual respect to genuine appreciation.There can be no doubt that Obama’s description of Clinton as the “best-qualified person ever to run for the presidency of the United States” is sincere. With her election, key elements of his legacy, both foreign and domestic, will indeed be safe—even, one suspects, the TPP. Her instincts may be hawkish, but she will face all the same constraints and uncertainties Obama did, plus an electorate that has just shown considerable support for a more isolationist rival. Old-line Republicans who decry Obama’s excess of caution have wished aloud for a President who will continue the pragmatic but bold foreign-policy tradition of Eisenhower, Reagan and the first (but, please God, not the second) George Bush. In Hillary Clinton, they are likely to get their wish.