Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State is a crucial part of her Presidential candidacy, as is her related reputation as one of the wonks. But at least one professional diplomat wasn’t impressed. In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, TAI’s own Nicholas M. Gallagher reviews To The Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect, by Mary Thompson-Jones:
Ms. Thompson-Jones is a diplomat’s diplomat: She writes cautiously and precisely, with appreciation for the importance of hierarchy. Yet, in the book’s explosive final chapter, she lays into Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. Both in foreign affairs and in intra-administration turf fights, Ms. Thompson-Jones writes that “Clinton tended to settle for too little and squandered her influence on the small stuff.” Mrs. Clinton shares responsibility for the disastrous “reset” with Russia and the subsequent failure of relations: “The cables leave a damning trail of evidence . . . showing that American diplomats on the ground were sending her plenty of information about Russian destabilization and aggression,” and yet nothing or not enough was changed. Mrs. Clinton, she writes, “had a penchant for racking up second-tier wins,” while critically important countries like Iraq, Syria and Russia, languished and fell into trouble. Mrs. Thompson-Jones is even critical of Mrs. Clinton’s championing of a project to bring “clean cookstoves” to the Third World: “Bravo, but was this the best and highest value use of her time?”
Though the rest of the book focuses on WikiLeaks, in this chapter Ms. Thompson-Jones (logically enough) cannot ignore the other source of unexpectedly revealed information: Hillary Clinton’s emails, initially exposed by the hacker “Guccifer” in 2013 and the vast majority of which were then released to the public following a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015. Mrs. Clinton’s “inner circle acolytes” and their sycophancy— Cheryl Mills, Huma Abedin and Philippe Reines—come in for harsh treatment. In Ms. Thompson-Jones’s view, Mrs. Clinton failed to succeed in part because she was insulated by a layer of courtiers who spent their time filling her inbox with emails like this one, from Mr. Reines after a 2010 “Meet the Press” appearance by Mrs. Clinton: “Whenever you do something big on TV we all hear from lots of folks saying you did great. But this time, something is noticeably different . . . You were definitely on your game. You either threw a perfect game—or at least a no-hitter. So this couldn’t have gone better, achieved everything we needed to times 10, and come on the heels of a great 10 days.” The interview had been arranged in order to walk back a minor Joe Biden gaffe on Russia.
Ms. Thompson-Jones sums up Mrs. Clinton as “The Good-Enough Secretary,” but only by diminishing the role of diplomacy and the importance of the U.S. Secretary of State in foreign affairs, arguing that she was a good administrator and politician who “stayed within the lines,” and that to expect more is impossible in an age when “even powerful people have less freedom of action” than the Henry Kissingers or Dean Achesons of yore. This is damning with faint praise indeed—though this election year faint praise may be the equivalent of a full-throated endorsement.
As Gallagher notes, despite the explosive comments in this chapter, “[m]uch of the book consists of captivating descriptions of U.S. diplomats dealing with crises overseas, traveling to exotic locations, meeting with dubious characters and even tracking endangered wildlife.” In that vein, Thompson-Jones tells us something we had not previously known: Walter Russell Mead appeared in the Wikileaks cables, in the context of a planned Public Diplomacy trip to Baghdad that had to be cancelled due to security concerns. (Walter says that it was the only thing that the Bush Administration ever did that his mother, a lifelong Democrat, wholeheartedly approved of.) Several of us have had the opportunity to come along on other outreach trips with Walter, and can attest, as Thompson-Jones argue, that they are an important, under-appreciated tool in modern diplomacy.
Any of our readers who are interested in a future in diplomacy or how the State Department works may be interested in the book. But all of our readers interested in this election will want to read Gallagher’s whole review.