Kim Ghattas offers a unique perspective in her coverage of the US State Department. Half-Dutch, half-Lebanese, Ghattas is a BBC reporter who grew up in war-torn Lebanon, coming from a secular, pro-Western family. This childhood scarred by war has, as she recounts, both informed and misinformed her about American power. The Secretary: a journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the heart of American power operates as both a dual biography and a primer on how the State Department actually works. Ghattas recounts her experiences in the traveling press corps, reporting on the machinations and reactions of the State Department. Besides Ghattas’s personal experiences in Lebanon, we trace the life of Hillary Clinton. Clinton, a divisive public figure, has had a unique career trajectory. She ended up in the State Department after a career that included First Lady and US Senator. (Republican nominees like Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State after stints as National Security Advisor.) Earlier Secretaries of State have included Thomas Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, John Foster Dulles, and Madeleine Albright. What does the Secretary of State do? The Secretary oversees the State Department, a giant organization employing upwards of 30,000 people, and the daily operations of all United States embassies.
Throughout the book, Ghattas refers to things like the Building, the Book, and the Line of Death. The Building is Foggy Bottom, the massive structure in DC that houses the administrative heart of the State Department. Throughout her journeys, Clinton receives updates and revisions of the Book, a guidebook of talking points, schedules, venues, and country information. The Line of Death refers to the invisible border separating the press from the State Department officials who travel with Clinton on SAM, the outdated passenger jet the Secretary uses for all her journeys.
The Secretary shows us several whirlwind tours, with Clinton bouncing from country to country, sometimes several in one day. The schedule is punishing and it is admirable both to the individuals in the State Department and the traveling press. Ghattas experiences the surrealistic sensations of global travel, including jet lag, tight deadlines, and opulent luxury. That luxury sometimes is lacking, due to scheduling oversights by the Line Officer. One day the press is ensconced in some luxurious hotel in Tokyo or Abu Dhabi, the next they might have to sleep in the vans that accompany Clinton’s armored Cadillac.
Clinton’s goals during her tenure included differentiating the Obama Administration from the previous, highlighting Asia, and focusing on women’s rights. In countless town hall meetings and public appearances, she stresses women’s rights, not as some mere feminist wedge issue, but linking it with national security. Let’s just say places that relegate women to second-class citizen status aren’t places conducive to tourism. Her efforts reach a crescendo when Ghattas and the press corps accompany Clinton to Burma and Clinton meets the famous woman dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
Finally, one can read The Secretary like a Mythbusters episode, since the previously skeptical Ghattas has her ideas changed about American power and how it is used. Is America a corporate imperial power conspiring towards global hegemony? Is American in decline? Did America stab Lebanon in the back in 1990, when it sold it out to Syria in exchange to create a broad-based coalition against Iraq? Ghattas knocks these conspiratorial preconceptions down with the objective level-headedness of a professional journalist. As a journalist covering the State Department, she used her access to ask tough questions to those who previously held power during the Lebanon crisis. Her hypothesis is disproved by accumulating evidence and weighing the facts. While the hyperventilating yahoos – I’m using the term in the Swiftian sense – yammer on about American conspiracies, the machinations of the Council of Foreign Relations, and nefarious deeds perpetrated by The Elites, The Secretary stands as a sensible counterweight. For anyone curious about how the State Department actually works on a day-to-day basis, including specific events like the WikiLeaks scandal and the still unfinished Arab Spring, this book comes highly recommended.
Out of 10/8.9, higher for students of American foreign policy.