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On the Plane with Hillary Clinton: Kim Ghattas in conversation with The Straddler

James Wrona

On May 10, 2013, The Straddler met journalist and author Kim Ghattas at a Dupont Circle café in Washington, D.C., to discuss her new book, The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (Times Books, 2013).

We had previously met with Ghattas, who is the BBC’s State Department Radio and TV correspondent, in 2011 for a conversation about how her upbringing in Beirut during the long civil war in Lebanon had contributed to her desire to become a reporter. At that time, Ghattas was working on the manuscript that would become The Secretary, in part, she told us, “to provide a perspective to an American audience on what it is like to be on the receiving end of American foreign policy.”

In The Secretary, Ghattas, whose mother is Dutch and father is Lebanese, describes a professional and personal journey that began in 2009 as the new Obama administration came to power with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Ghattas, May 10, 2013
I feel very at home in Washington. I’ve tried to remain true to myself as a Lebanese and as an outsider while also managing to make a mark in my reporting that gets noticed by people who follow foreign policy in Washington. Many people have told me that I present the complexities and nuances of how America is perceived around the world in a way that can’t necessarily be done by an American because I understand the experience of living in countries like Lebanon or Pakistan. I am not pretending I’m translating the whole of the Arab world for the West, but in my book I do try to show the nuances of how the rest of the world perceives the U.S. to an American audience. And vice versa—I try to demystify and make accessible the workings of American power for an international audience.


I find that people around the world still expect the US to do right—but they define right very differently. In Egypt, for example, the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood wonder why the U.S. supports the president. In their view, the US should do the “right” thing and oppose an Islamist president because of concerns about democracy, human rights, women’s rights. But the response of the US is, “We recognized the results of a democratic election.” And of course American officials say that they continue to press for respect of democracy and human rights. But for people who feel the U.S. isn’t delivering for them, it’s because they believe the U.S. isn’t doing the right thing from their perspective. People who are on the receiving end of decisions made in Washington often don’t get this clash between American values and interests.

You know, the U.S. has a dark history in Latin America, and you can argue they have a difficult history in the Middle East, but for many people they’re also the guarantor of a reasonably stable world order. Should you settle for the U.S. as superpower because it’s less bad than what could be? I think it’s important to be realistic. I’m very pragmatic about things—this is the world as it is. You could ask, why should the U.S. be the biggest superpower that has a say in all of these things? Well, it just is. But it is also being challenged by people around the world who are demanding better from the U.S. The world has changed. There is no point in trying to make the old order stick and the US understands that too. Turkey is a power, Brazil is a power, India is a power, South Africa is a power, Indonesia is a power, and of course, China—and they all have a growing say in how the world is run.

When it comes to Hillary Clinton and what she was doing as Secretary of State, a lot was informed by the previous eight years during which multilateral diplomacy was not exactly a priority. There was very much a sense that whatever you thought of President Bush’s policies, they had damaged America’s standing in the world. I think we can all probably agree on that. America was exhausted by two wars, its image was tarnished by Guantanamo Bay, by Abu Ghraib Prison, by renditions—all of that. There was a sense that American power had to present a more palatable face. America had to tend to its relations with its allies and with rivals, create new alliances, improve perceptions of its image around the world. So over the course of four years, Clinton was very focused on adjusting the perception and the trajectory that the U.S. was on—but also on thinking through this modern world where power is more diffuse, more difficult to define, and more difficult to hold on to. How do you maintain America’s leadership and edge in the 21st century? Part of her work was to redefine how the U.S. did business around the world so that it could remain relevant as a global leader.

I think she was also very successful in engaging with civil society. When you talked to people in the room after she left, they all appreciated that she spent the time with them. Wherever she went, there was appreciation that a senior American official had spent an hour with them. In many countries, senior officials don’t spend time answering questions from their own people. I think her relentless traveling and public diplomacy contributed greatly to improving perceptions of the U.S., and is one of the underreported, underappreciated aspects of her legacy. She was on a campaign for America. But these are very fragile gains, hard to quantify, and hard to maintain if you don’t keep at it, or if there’s another war.

What was very important for me in this journey was to understand the “why” of things. I think that when you are dealing with a superpower that has interests and values, you are always going to have some sort of ambivalence. I mean, this is not a book about advocacy. I am not saying America should be a superpower, that America is great, or that everybody should love America. I don’t have to accept everything America does at face value or without question, not as an individual and especially not as a journalist. Some of the things the U.S. has done are great, and some are not. Even Hillary Clinton and other officials will acknowledge that. But understanding the “why” is very important.

In 1990, for example, when I was in Beirut, I was very aware that there was a geopolitical dance that involved the U.S. that somehow led to the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in October 1990. As I write in the book, as far as I can tell—and I still want to dig deeper—there was no green light from America, but there was no red light either. I think it’s an episode in the history of America’s involvement in Lebanon that has been forgotten and that I would like to revisit to find out more about what happened. I would like to understand the “why”—to try to make sense of it. Understanding the “why” of a situation with the Syrian invasion does not mean that it suddenly becomes okay—but it gives you a better understanding of what drives decisions.

A lot is out of the control of the U.S.—it doesn’t pull all the strings, it doesn’t have control over everything. Policy is made by fallible human beings. Events constantly force officials to rethink how they’re approaching a problem. We know, for example, that no one really anticipated events in the Arab world. Everybody knew that change was inevitable, that the situation was untenable because of the demographics, the unemployment, all of these issues. But no one expected it to erupt the way it did, and for so long.

And I think that it’s going to be a very, very long process. It will be very difficult in the short term, but I am hopeful in the long term. This is a long phase of transition which will have dark moments during which the Arab world will eventually reach a different place. It is a voyage of discovery that comes with a lot of pain—and in Syria, it’s tearing apart the country and thousands are dying. But there’s no turning back. The region’s growth was stunted by rulers like Hosni Mubarak, or Zine El Abdine Ben Ali, or Bashar Al Assad. Yes, they provided stability, but it came at a great cost for people. Leaders like Mubarak were allies of the U.S., but if anyone has nostalgia for the rule of Mubarak—well, that’s not really a policy. The situation was untenable. That’s not to say that everybody in Egypt is happy with the current situation. But it seems to me there’s a process of discovery underway—a coming of age that has some pretty dark moments. But I am the eternal optimist—otherwise you don’t survive fifteen years of war the way I did in Lebanon with any sort of sanity left. I always persist in believing that things will get better, that despite the hardship there is hope, and that it’s just going to take time.

To the extent that foreign correspondents are usually in a posting for three to four years, I should be leaving soon or be gone already. But I’m considering making Washington my home base. Part of what’s driving my decision-making is that I don’t really want to leave. I am really happy here. But I am starting, much to my surprise, to miss Lebanon—I’m not ready to move back full time, because I’m not totally at home there. Even though I lived in Lebanon my whole life until I moved to the U.S. in 2008, I often feel like an outsider in Beirut. But if I’m missing Lebanon now, it means I’m not fully at home here in Washington either. That’s what you get when you belong to two worlds at the same time—and I’d like to stay connected to both aspects of my identity. So ideally what I want is to be able to divide my time a little more between Beirut and Washington. My dual identity as an Arab woman and as a Westerner is something that I really embrace, and that I live on a daily basis. I’ve never lived it as a conflict; it is very enriching. I learn from it, and maybe other people can learn from it, too.

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