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'Hard Choices' recalls memories, regrets from Clinton's State years

By CNN Political Unit
updated 6:46 PM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clinton starts the book with the end of her bruising 2008 campaign against Obama
  • Clinton wanted to arm Syrian rebels, but lost that argument with the President
  • She called the killing of Osama bin Laden her proudest moment at State Department
  • Her thoughts on a 2016 presidential run? 'I haven't decided yet'

Washington (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton's "Hard Choices" -- a memoir where the former secretary of state writes about her 2008 loss to President Barack Obama, her reaction to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi and her overarching vision of foreign policy decisions as America's top diplomat -- is largely a safe retelling of Clinton's tenure.

Clinton casts most diplomatic decisions as a problem with tradeoffs that require people to make hard choices. The Afghanistan surge, how Pakistan deals with terrorism and Benghazi are all hard choices, Clinton writes.

But the fact that the book is safe and lacks any shocking details is possibly the most telling aspect of the book. A careful book that isn't looking to make waves is usually penned by someone with future plans and ambition, not someone with no more skin in the game.

The book is seen as an important moment for Clinton, the current favorite to win the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination should she run. Critics have charged that her time as America's top diplomat was marked by a lack of a crowning achievement, while Clinton confidants have looked to frame those years as a success and see the book as the most potent way to do that.

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While it lacks bombshells, "Hard Choices" is chock full of interesting tidbits about the Clinton State Department. A handful of CNN writers and producers read the book and here are some of the most interesting passages.

From campaign to cabinet

Clinton starts the book by detailing how she and Obama -- as well as their staffs -- got over the bruising 2008 campaign.

They first met, Clinton writes, at Sen. Dianne Feinstein's house, a mutual friend. Clinton writes that she had to lay down in the back of a "blue minivan" to avoid the media on the way to the meeting.

"We stared at each other like two teenagers on an awkward first date, taking a few sips of Chardonnay," she writes about the hour-and-a-half meeting. "Finally Barack broke the ice by ribbing me a bit about the tough campaign I had run against him."

Although Clinton describes the meeting as to-the-point and cordial, the former first lady also writes that one campaign charge stood in between them: The charge of racism against former President Bill Clinton.

"Barack made clear that neither he nor his team believed that accusation," Clinton writes. "The candor of our conversation was reasserting and reinforced by my resolve to support him."

Clinton would go on to back Obama's candidacy and delivered a speech backing him a few days after their meeting.

In reflecting on the loss, Clinton writes that she was "lucky to have lost to a candidate whose views dovetailed closely with my own."

Though Obama tapped Clinton to lead State, some of her supporters were upset she was not asked to be his vice president. In the book, Clinton writes that she was "never interested in being Vice President" and was "looking forward to retiring to the Senate."

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In her support of Obama, the President's campaign would regularly call on Clinton to issue statements and make appearances during his general election fight with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Clinton writes that a "collective 'Who?' echoed across the nation" when McCain named then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

The Obama campaign asked Clinton to issue a "dismissive statement," but the then-senator from New York writes that she declined.

"I wouldn't. I was not going to attack Palin just for being a woman appealing for support from other women," Clinton writes. "I didn't think it made political sense, and it didn't feel right. So I said 'no.'"

In reflecting on saying 'yes' to serving in Obama's cabinet, Clinton said "the President fully lived up to his promises" and in total she visited the White House more than 700 times during her four years in the job.

And in her epilogue, Clinton writes that Obama asked her to stay on as Secretary of State in 2012. "One term, that's it," she says she told the president.

Mending fences

Clinton writes that there were a number of people who helped mend fences between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Huma Abedin, Clinton's close adviser, and Obama's body man Reggie Love were the first connection between the campaigns, she writes.

The former Secretary of State also notes that Vice President Joe Biden was a close friend during her years at State.

"His warmth and humor would be very welcome during long hours in the White House Situation Room," she notes. "Every week, Joe and I tried to meet for a private breakfast at the Naval Observatory, his official residence, which is near my home. Always the gentleman, he would meet me at the car and walk me to a sunny nook off the porch, where we would eat and talk. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes we disagree, but I always appreciated our frank and confidential conversations."

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Clinton describes President Obama's first Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- someone she notes was known for his "forceful personality and vivid language (that's putting it politely)" -- as integral to mending relations between her and Obama.

"During the hard-fought primary campaign, Rahm had stayed neutral because of his strong ties to both me and then-Senator Obama," Clinton writes. "Now that we were all serving together, Rahm would provide some of the initial glue holding this 'team of rivals' together."

Clinton also writes about those who had fervently supported Obama in the primary, including Susan Rice, the former U.N. Ambassador and current National Security Advisor who has since become a lightning rod for GOP criticism.

"I knew it was part of her job, and we put the past behind us and worked together closely," Clinton writes.

Taking over at State

In a chapter about taking the reins in Foggy Bottom, Clinton writes that she was wary of revealing any daylight between her and Obama, particularly following the long and hard-fought primary between the two former rivals.

"I intended to be a vigorous advocate for my positions within the administration," she writes. "But as I knew from history and my own experience, the sign on Harry Truman's desk in the Oval Office was correct: the buck did stop with the President. And because of the long primary battle, I also knew the press would be looking -- even hoping -- for any signs of discord between me and the White House. I intended to deprive them of that story."

On then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Clinton writes that she and Gates "became allies from the start."

"He was also a convincing advocate for giving diplomacy and development more resources and a bigger role in our foreign policy," Clinton writes.

During the transition process, Clinton recounts dining with outgoing Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to discuss policy hurdles and personnel in Foggy Bottom. Clinton also recounts her meetings with the seven other living secretaries of state: from Henry Kissinger to Madeleine Albright, and from George Shultz to Colin Powell.

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The most practical advice came from Warren Christopher, who was the first to serve under her husband, Clinton writes.

"Don't plan vacations in August because something always seems to happen that month, such as Russia invading Georgia in 2008," Clinton writes.

Kissinger shared his impressions of foreign leaders and Colin Powell offered "candid assessments of individuals and ideas" Clinton was considering.

But the "best gift of all" came from Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz: "A teddy bear that sang 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' when its paw was squeezed."

Chelsea's wedding

Clinton concludes her chapter on Asia with a section about Chelsea Clinton's wedding.

She writes that she and a senior Chinese leader had bonded over discussing how their work was really focused on their children and their children's children.

"This is what we're in it for," he said to her, she writes.

"I felt lucky that my day job had prepared me for the elaborate diplomacy required to help plan a big wedding," she wrote.

Not surprisingly the "wedding was one of the happiest and proudest moments of my life," Clinton notes.

And in one of the more reflective points of the chapter, Clinton notes her family's sometimes public and difficult past when thinking about her daughter's wedding.

"So many thoughts went through my head," Clinton writes about the wedding. "Our family had been through a lot together, good times and hard times, and now here we were, celebrating the best of times."

Kindred spirits in Myanmar

Clinton writes extensively about her work in Myanmar, and particularly about her interactions with Aung Suu Kyi, the activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner whose work to open the country to democracy has made her an international symbol.

"The first time I met Aung San Suu Kyi, on December 1, 2011, we were both wearing white. It seems like an auspicious coincidence," Clinton writes. "After so many years of reading and thinking about this celebrated Burmese dissident, we were finally face-to-face....I felt as if we had known each other for a lifetime, even though we had just met."

Describing their conversation, Clinton said she shared "lessons from other pro-democracy movements around the world" and "shared some memories of my first run for office. She asked me many questions about the preparation and process of becoming a candidate."

Suu Kyi would later visit the United States in September 2012 where she met with Clinton.

Throughout the chapter, Clinton notes similarities she sees with Suu Kyi.

"As we ate, Suu Kyi described the district she now represented in Parliament. As much as she was focused on the high drama of national politics, she was also obsessed with the minutiae of constituency service and solving problems," Clinton writes. "I remembered feeling exactly the same way when the voters of New York elected me to the U.S. Senate. If you can't get the potholes fixed, nothing else matters."

Outside groups who are touting Clinton's State record have focused on Myanmar as a success story for Clinton.

An unlikely photo op

Clinton describes, in a chapter about Asia, the events leading up to former President Bill Clinton's 2009 mission to North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists -- Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

She writes she was "surprised" to learn that former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il wanted the former President to personally make the trip and also describes some resistance inside the White House to sending President Clinton.

"Some may have harbored negative feelings toward Bill from the 2008 primary campaign, but most were simply reluctant to reward Kim's bad behavior with such a high-profile trip and potentially create concerns for our allies," Clinton writes. "They had a good point."

On the unusual photo-op taken by Clinton and Kim Jong-Ill, Clinton writes that her husband and his entourage were briefed not to express any emotion in any photographs.

"A humorous but important part of the preparation involved coaching them not to be smiling (or frowning) when the inevitable official photos with Kim were taken," she wrote. "The official images released by the regime were appropriately stilted; no smiling by any of the Americans."

The former President later joked "that he felt like he was auditioning for a James Bond movie."

Gaza

Clinton writes that her November 2012 trip to the Middle East was an "emergency diplomatic mission" to stop an outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas from escalating into all-out war.

"After four years of frustrating diplomacy in the Middle East," she wrote, "this would be a crucial test of America's leadership."

With Hamas rockets raining on Israeli cities, even threatening Tel Aviv, the United States felt Israel had a right to defend itself. "But we also knew that a ground invasion could be catastrophic for all concerned," Clinton wrote about Israeli plans to call up reservists.

President Obama was wary of the United States taking on a direct mediating role, Clinton notes, but ultimately agreed after several meetings with Clinton. She describes her role as negotiator in brokering a cease-fire in Gaza with the help of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had strong ties to Hamas.

After Clinton helped secure a cease-fire, with Egypt's help, Clinton writes highly of her efforts, noting that "one senior Israel official confided to me that his government had been 48 hours away from launching a ground invasion and that my diplomatic intervention was the only thing standing in the way of a much more explosive confrontation."

Iraq regrets

Clinton writes, with some candor, about her regret in voting for the 2002 Iraq War authorization.

"I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had," Clinton wrote. "And I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple."

The issue was a key sticking point between Clinton and Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary, with many voters hammering Clinton for backing President George W. Bush's proposed war.

"I should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible," Clinton writes. "In our political culture, saying you made a mistake is often taken as weakness when in fact it can be a sign of strength and growth for people and nations. That's another lesson I've learned personally and experienced as Secretary of State."

Losing on Syria

In the book, Clinton describes the bloody three-year long civil war in Syria as "a wicked problem."

On whether to arm the Syrian rebels, a contentious issue, Clinton writes that "I returned to Washington reasonably confident that if we decided to begin arming and training moderate Syrian rebels, we could put in place effective coordination with our regional partners."

The United States, she wrote, did not want to send arms to the rebels that could wind up in the hands of extremists. But it was equally concerned about splitting the international coalition, where many nations were frustrated by the United States' cautious policy. Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts were frustrated by Russia's efforts to block action at the United Nations Security Council.

Clinton says there was no good policy action for the United States, and she highlights were she and Obama disagreed on the conflict.

"(T)he risks of both action and inaction were high. Both choices would bring unintended consequences. The President's inclination was to stay the present course and not take the significant further step of arming rebels.

"No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the President's call and I respected his deliberations and decision. From the beginning of our partnership, he had promised me that I would always get a fair hearing. And I always did. In this case, my position didn't prevail," Clinton writes.

Although as Clinton backed Obama's Syria policy as Secretary of State -- including negotiating with the international community on the civil war and criticizing countries like Russia and China, which stood in the way of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- Clinton's writings now show the level with which she split with Obama on arming the rebels.

A tougher deal for Bergdahl

When she was America's top diplomat, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that negotiating with the Taliban for Bowe Bergdahl's release "would be hard to swallow for many Americans."

"In every discussion about prisoners, we demanded the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured in 2009," Clinton writes. "There would not be any agreement about prisoners without the sergeant coming home."

She continues, "I acknowledged, as I had many times before, that opening the door to negotiations with the Taliban would be hard to swallow for many Americans after so many years of war."

Clinton's reflections on Bergdahl have become big news in light of the soldier's release from Taliban captivity in exchange for the United States releasing five terrorists. Clinton has offered a measured defense of the release in interviews and speeches, but her book shows how skeptical she was about the trade.

In Clinton's chapter on Afghanistan, she writes extensively about the U.S. effort to forge peace among the Karzai government, the Taliban, and Pakistan. Clinton also touches on her insistence that the political progress made toward the benefit of Afghan women not be undermined moving forward.

Terrorism and Osama bin Laden

The search and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden is a story that Clinton regularly uses in speeches and interviews as a success story from her four years at State. And her book is no different.

In a chapter about Pakistan -- the country where bin Laden was found -- Clinton writes at length about the search and the tensions that compounded after U.S. Navy SEALS entered the country to get the terrorist leader.

"I knew how offended they would be if we did not share this information with them," Clinton writes. "But I also knew that elements in the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, maintained ties to the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other extremists. The risks of blowing the whole operation were just too great."

Clinton has often heralded the raid that killed bid Laden as one of her proudest moments at State. She writes that she was an early and vocal supporter of the raid and watched with bated breath as the Navy SEALS entered his compound.

And on drones, Clinton writes that every drone strike was subjected to "rigorous and legal policy review."

She writes that she supported some proposed strikes but did oppose others, writing one time "my good friend Leon Panetta, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and I had a shouting match over one proposed strike." She did not provide details about the tiff.

She says because the program was classified she could not talk publicly about it "nor was I free to express America's sympathies for the loss of any innocent life or our course of action was the one least likely to harm civilians."

All about the hair

As Hillary Clinton has been touring the country giving paid speeches and preparing for the launch of her book, she is often found citing some of the suggested book titles offered up by Washington Post readers in a contest hosted by the newspaper last year when the publication of the book was announced.

Clinton is fond of saying her favorite suggested title is "112 Countries. . .And It's Still All About My Hair."

Apparently, that wasn't much of an exaggeration.

In her book, Clinton depicts a scene in February 2012 of meeting the "clearly nervous" Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. "Madam Secretary, I was very worried when I saw television footage of you getting off the plane," Clinton quotes Borisov saying. "I was briefed by my chief of staff that when your hair is pulled back, it means you're in a bad mood," he continued according to Clinton's account.

Clinton writes that she "looked at the mostly bald Prime Minister, smiled, and said, 'It just takes me a little longer to do my hair than it takes you.'"

The two laughed and went on to have a productive meeting, Clinton notes.

Tough talk on Russia, Putin

Clinton has made bashing Russia President Vladimir Putin a staple of her speaking tour. She compared his actions to Adolph Hitler earlier in the year and later compared his rule over Russia to that of late communist leaders.

In her chapter on Russia, Clinton devotes a great deal of space to her relationship with Putin and the regression on relations with the country.

"Hard men present hard choices -- none more so than Vladimir Putin," the chapter's first sentence reads. "Putin's worldview is shaped by his admiration for the powerful czars of Russian history, Russia's long-standing interest in controlling the nations on its borders, and his personal determination that his country never again appear weak or at the mercy of the West."

She goes on to discuss Putin's ambitions of reducing the United States' role in Central and Eastern Europe and his efforts to "counter or at least mute" U.S. efforts in Arab Spring countries -- all in the chapter's first paragraph.

Clinton writes that Putin proved to be "thin-skinned and autocratic" and that he grew to resent criticism and crack down on dissenting voices and the press.

Clinton's final assessment of Putin's impact on his country? "Unfortunately, as of now, Russia under Putin remains frozen between the past they can't let go of and the future they can't bring themselves to embrace," she writes.

Cuba, Mexico and drugs

At a 2009 press conference in Mexico, Clinton remarked that, "the U.S. recognizes that drug trafficking is not only Mexico's problem. It is also an American problem. And we in the U.S. have a responsibility to help you address it."

Clinton writes that she anticipated the media "hysteria and talk of 'apologizing for America" that would follow, but stood by the comment.

"Political concerns are not irrelevant in foreign policy; the United States is strongest when we face the world united, so building and maintaining public support for our politics at home is important," Clinton wrote. "But in this case I was prepared to absorb the criticism in order to do what was right and advance our agenda."

On Cuba, Clinton writes that "near the end" of her time at State, she "recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo" against Cuba.

The embargo has been in place since the 1960s and restricts the trade that can happen between the United States and Cuba. Clinton writes that the embargo "wasn't achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America."

"After twenty years of observing and dealing with the U.S.-Cuba relationship, I thought we should shift the onus onto the Castros to explain why they remained undemocratic and abusive," she concludes.

Defending Huma

Clinton offered an outright defense of her close aide Huma Abedin after some congressional Republicans accused her of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012.

"Privately I was furious at the attacks on Huma by several ignorant House members," Clinton wrote. "So I was grateful to Senator John McCain, who had gotten to know her over the years, when he went to the floor of the Senate and made his own disdain clear."

Benghazi and those "who exploit" it

Hillary Clinton's Benghazi chapter was leaked to Politico over a week before "Hard Choices" was set to hit bookshelves, largely as a way to get the most long-awaited news in the book out of the way.

Clinton takes a defiant tone in the chapter, bashing those "who exploit" the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack as "a political tool." She later casts doubt about her participation in the House Republican select committee into the terrorist attack, writing that she will "not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans."

Clinton uses the chapter to retell her recollection of how Benghazi unfolded, but devote a few pages to the background of the event, including how other diplomatic personnel have been killed in the line of duty before.

For more on the Benghazi chapter.

"Memories of Benghazi will stay with me always, and they will shape the way America's diplomat do their jobs in the future," Clinton concludes.

Nuance, regret on Iran

Clinton dedicates a chapter in her memoir to how the United States should deal with Iran, particularly its enrichment of uranium.

Parroting past statement she has made on Iran, Clinton supports leaving "all options" on the table when deal with Iran -- something she did in 2007 -- while also noting that the United States "should not be afraid to talk with other adversaries such as Iran under appropriate conditions."

But in reflecting on the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, which saw middle class Iranians calling for democracy and the ouster of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Clinton writes in more direct, less nuanced, tones.

"In retrospect I'm not sure out restraint was the right choices," she writes. "It did not stop the regime from ruthlessly crushing the Green Movement, which was exceedingly painful to watch."

She later adds: "I came to regret that we did not speak out more forcefully and rally others to do the same."

Clinton also gives a nod to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in her chapter about Iran. Some American Jews have expressed concern with how the Obama administration -- and by extension Clinton -- negotiated with Iran on slowing its nuclear program starting in 2012.

Clinton writes in the chapter that she and Netanyahu saw eye to eye on a nuclear Iran and the importance that military options were on the table. They just, she wrote, disagreed on how vocal to be about it. She even writes that Netanyahu adopted one of her statements on Iran -- "crippling sanctions" -- for himself.

Overall, Clinton argues that relations with Iran and the prospect of limiting their nuclear program are the best they have ever been. "This is the most promising development in a longtime," she writes. "And it is worth testing to see what could be achieved."

Balancing Israel and Palestine

Clinton balances her time between Israel and Palestine in a portion of the book about the Middle East.

"Many Americans admire Israel as a homeland for a people long oppressed and a democracy that has had to defend itself at every turn," Clinton writes. "In Israel's story we see our own, and the story of all people who struggle for freedom and the right to chart their own destinies."

The latter line is something Clinton said earlier this year in a speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington.

But Clinton also spends time advocating for the rights of Palestinians in the book.

"When we left the city and visited Jericho, in the West Bank, I got my first glimpse of life under occupation for Palestinians, who were denied the dignity and self-determination that Americans take for granted," Clinton writes about one visit.

Clinton later describes East Jerusalem as something Israel "captured" in 1967, noting that "Palestinians dreamed of one day establishing the capital of their future state there."

"There has been nearly a decade of terror, arising from the second intifada, which started in September 2000," Clinton writes. "About a thousand Israelis were killed and eight thousand wounded in terrorist attacks from September 2000 to February 2005. Three times as many Palestinians were killed and thousands more were injured in the same period."

Distance with Obama on Egypt, Arab Spring

During the debate over how to handle the Arab Spring and the 2011 protests that raged and eventually toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Clinton casts some doubt on how the Obama administration handled the situation.

Clinton writes that like "other young people around the world" members of Obama's staff in the White House were "swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment as they watched the pictures from Tahrir Square on television."

She casts herself, by comparison, as more of a realist who was "concerned that we not be seen as pushing a longtime partner out the door." Clinton includes Vice President Joe Biden, then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, and then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in this group.

Portraying the decision on Mubarak another hard choice -- a theme and the title of the book -- Clinton writes that Egypt "served as a linchpin of peace in a volatile region. Were we really ready to walk away from that relationship after thirty years of cooperation?"

Clinton writes that she told the president, "it all may work out fine in twenty-five years, but I think the period between now and then will be quite rocky for the Egyptian people, for the region and for us."

LGBT Rights

Clinton devotes eight pages of her chapter on human rights to her work on LGBT rights while at the State Department.

"When I look back at my time as Secretary, I'm proud of the work we did to extend the circle of human dignity and human rights to include people historically excluded," she writes.

In particular, she notes she decided in 2009 to extend the "full range of legally available benefits and allowances to same-sex domestic partners of Foreign Service staff serving abroad."

2016: "I haven't decided yet."

The question on everyone's mind around Clinton's book is whether she will run for president in 2016. She has told audience after audience that she is considering it and has become more open in answering questions about the presidential race.

In the book, Clinton poses the question to herself. And her answer: "I haven't decided yet."

"Having run for President before, I understand exactly how challenging it is on every front -- not only on candidates but on their families as well," Clinton writes. "After having lost in 2008, I know that nothing is guaranteed, nothing can be taken for granted."

Thank yous

In the acknowledgments of portion of her book, Clinton thanks "everyone who help me through four years at the State Department and more than a year of writing and editing."

She also thanks her "book team" of Dan Schwerin, Ethan Gelber and Ted Widmer -- all longtime aides.

Her second-to-last thank you -- just before Bill and Chelsea -- goes to Obama for "putting his trust in me and giving me the chance to represent our country, and to Vice President Biden and the National Security Council staff for their partnership."

What's not in Hillary Clinton's memoir?

Hillary Clinton talks Monica, Benghazi and her record

Hillary Clinton in 2001: We were 'dead broke'

CNN's Dan Merica, Craig Broffman, Elise Labott, Tim McCaughan, Laurie Ure, Rachel Streitfeld, Jeremy Diamond, David Chalian, Robert Yoon, Sean Kennedy, Steve Brusk, Alison Harding, Jamie Crawford and Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.

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