The FRONTLINE Interview: Dennis Ross


September 27, 2016

As a former advisor to Hillary Clinton at the State Department, and then a member of President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, Dennis Ross understands Clinton’s view on America’s role in the world better than many others. Whether during the uprisings in Egypt, Libya or Syria, Ross says, “the Hillary doctrine … was a doctrine that basically said you need American engagement.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean military intervention says Ross, now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Instead, it’s about putting the United States in a position to “manage change.”

In the below interview, Ross discusses how this philosophy influenced the debate inside the administration during the Arab Spring, Clinton’s early efforts to gain Obama’s confidence and her response to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya.

This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore held on July 1, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let’s talk first about the 2008 elections. Hillary and Obama were pretty bitter rivals. He wins. She gets a phone call. “Hey, how’d you like to be secretary of state?” Was that one of these situations of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, or was there something else going on in why she agrees to do it?

I think President Obama decides to ask Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state because I think there is this image in his own mind that having diversity around him is a good thing, and it shows his capacity for dealing with a wide range of different points of view. And again, consider the kind of message he was conveying. He was a different kind of candidate. He was going to bring the country together. There was going to be this great impulse toward creating a sense of unity. He represented a transformational figure. And so all these factors kind of go into creating a sense of, “If I bring Hillary in, it demonstrates someone I ran against, I’m ready to work with.”

I think from her standpoint it was probably a surprise. My guess is, the initial impulse was, “Why do I want to do that?” And then she began to think about: “Well, do I really want to go back to the Senate when I can be secretary of state? And secretary of state gives me a chance to do something. I’ve done a lot of other things, but I haven’t been that active in foreign policy and national security. I know it.” She’d been on the Armed Services Committee. She had been steeped in things. … So I think, after an initial blush of thinking, “Do I really want to do something? Do I really want to leave the Senate?,” I think the feeling was, “This gives me, actually, a chance to do something meaningful.”

Was it also practically minded in the way that she understood that, if she runs for president again in eight years, that it gave her, on her CV, the additional thing that some people thought was missing? Was it also politically savvy?

Well, I suspect that that was an element. I don’t know that it was a decisive element, but it would be remarkable if that wasn’t an element, absolutely. I think that this was probably in her thinking, you know: “This really rounds out my experience. Everybody knows me from a domestic angle. Now I will demonstrate that I bring a national security credential as well.”

So you get a call from her asking you to join her at the State Department. How does she describe what she thinks her role in the administration is going to be?

Yeah, it’s interesting. We had several subsequent conversations where she just wanted to talk and speak at length about a number of different substantive issues. And then she wanted to speak about some of the kind of personnel who could be in. But also, she talked about what she wanted to get done as secretary of state. I think she felt that the president was going to give her a license to really operate and shape an approach to foreign policy, and then implement that approach to foreign policy.

I certainly expected that to be the case. … I was also asked to go to the White House. I chose to go with her, because I thought [that] would be the place where conceptualization of foreign policy would take place, and then the implementation of the concepts would take place. I suspect that she felt that the president, certainly the way I did, was going to be consumed by the financial meltdown, and this was going to give her an enormous capacity to then shape and carry out the foreign policy.

But you all find out something very different. What is that, and how she accepts that, and what does she do?

Yes. What we find out is that all decision making is concentrated in the White House, that there are no decisions that are going to get made that don’t get vetted and run through the White House, no matter how small. And she adjusts. … She wasn’t going to be granted this kind of grand role in foreign policy that she might have anticipated going in. So I think very much in her mind was: “All right, I’m going to prove myself. I’m going to prove that I can be a good soldier. I’m going to prove to the president that I can do these things, that I’m loyal to him.” …

You’ve known Hillary for a long time. Describe how different she is at this point in her career than she was in the ‘90s, when she first arrived to Washington.

Well, you know, I don’t have a lot of exposure to her early in the Clinton administration. I have much more exposure to her later in the Clinton administration, certainly from ’95 on. By the time I had exposure to her, the image of her that had been built up is not the one that I see, you know, the image of her and the way she shaped the effort of health care in the initial part of the Clinton administration, in the sense that she was running things and didn’t tolerate a lot of people challenging her.

When I’m briefing her during those periods, I see someone who listens a lot. So my own exposure to her doesn’t fit with the image of her. But when I see her — and I see her, you know, during a time when she’s a senator; I talked to her from time to time then. And I think by the time I see her in this role, she is savvy about Washington, sensitive to those who are constantly trying to create problems where there may not be, very sensitive to not wanting to play to the image of having an agenda that is separate from the president, you know, in a sense, someone who understands the kind of psychology of Washington that frequently seems to be driven by a desire to see who’s up, who’s down, what are the differences. She is very mindful that she’s going to play a role in a way that will allow her to be as successful as possible. I think she’s careful. She’s very studious.

I’ve been around a lot of people, I’ve worked for a lot of secretaries. One thing about Hillary Clinton as secretary, she always does her homework. Whenever I go into a meeting with her, if I had written something in advance of the meeting, the one thing I could count on, she’d read it, digested it, and the minute you walk in to have the discussion, she’s basically peppering you with questions about what you’ve written.

You get the sense of someone who is determined to always be prepared. …

It sounds like she didn’t change that much then. I mean, she had gone through an awful lot. You would assume that she would have become more savvy in the ways of Washington — certainly more mature in her understanding of the ways of Washington as well as the ways of the world and such. Did you see much of an evolution at all by this time?

… My perception was that she felt she had been burned a number of times, and that makes someone cautious. What I saw in her, certainly by this time, is someone who is careful and cautious, mindful of the likely minefields, wanting to be sure she doesn’t step on any of them. What I see is someone who is always prepared, but who is also quite mindful of where you can run into problems, particularly if you’re not prepared, but also that there is a lot of people in this town who were out to try to create problems for you. Again, that leads, in my mind, to someone who’s careful.

As you say, once she understands the nature of where the power lies at this point, really more in the White House, she changes her direction somewhat. One of the things she does is she works hard to get close to the president, I guess convince the president of how she can be helpful. How did she do that?

I’ll give you an example. The president, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, is determined not only to show it as a priority, but is determined also to highlight some differences from the Israelis. He comes in with a mind-set that … he’s got to show the differences from Bush. And not unusual for a president, but he believes the problems we have with Muslims have been created very much by the image of Bush being at war with Muslims.

So he is looking for ways to demonstrate difference. One way is to be prepared to show some differences from Israel, because he thinks that Bush was too close to Israel. In fact, he says at one point there was no daylight for eight years, actually when there was, but nonetheless he says that.

And she, on issues like the settlements, for example, she thinks he’s going too far in terms of doing that, but she kind of salutes. She delivers the tough messages. She does it in Bibi’s [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] first trip to Washington, after the meeting with the president. That night, she reinforces with Bibi: “He’s serious about this. You have to act on this.” It’s not her own sense that this is the smartest way to deal with him or this is the best way to be productive with him. And later on, in the administration, she will, when she has conversations with Bibi, she’ll say, “Look, the president, in a sense, this is where he’s coming from, but I think there are ways we can address your needs.”

In the early going, she’s much more determined to convey the president’s message as it is. And there are times when the president wants her to adopt a very tough posture toward Bibi. In March 2010, Vice President Biden takes a trip to Israel, and there’s this announcement of new settlement construction in Jerusalem. We’re on that trip, and we think we’ve sorted everything out. And she is told by the president the day after we think we’ve sorted things out that she needs to call Bibi and pretty much ream him out and demand things of him and put out publicly that she has done that.

… So she does it. I mean, she does things at this stage where she feels, all right, you know, she may argue against it, but she finds that she doesn’t win those arguments, and she doesn’t continue to resist after she argues against it. She carries out what the president is asking her to do.

And here, I mean, I view that as her trying to prove herself that, “OK, I will do what you want; I’ll make my case if I think it’s wrong, but I will do what you want,” as a way of showing “I’m the good soldier; I will perform for you, and you can count on me.”

“I think very much in her mind was: ‘All right, I’m going to prove myself. I’m going to prove that I can be a good soldier. I’m going to prove to the president that I can do these things, that I’m loyal to him.'”

And how does it adjust the relationship? Does it accomplish what she had hoped it would accomplish?

I think it does. Over time she is granted more and more license to do things. By the second half of the first term, [she] is quite different from where she is in the first half of the first term, in terms of everything being so micromanaged by the White House. There is continuing micromanagement, but she finds greater room and greater scope to be able to act because she’s built up a sense in the president’s mind that, “OK, I can count on Hillary.”

… So I think that the effort she makes pays off in terms of creating the space that she was hoping she would have.

Interesting. He becomes more and more of a Hillary supporter as time goes by.

He does; there’s no question.

… Did you get a sense that she was looking for a big accomplishment to define her as the secretary of state that had come [of] age or whatever, and that would provide her with a legacy of being a successful secretary of state?

I actually didn’t see that. I think there were a lot of people who wanted her to do that, but I think she saw for herself a role in terms of becoming a voice internationally for those who didn’t have it. This became an agenda for her that was natural. It wouldn’t be seen as threatening to the president. It could be seen as consistent with what the president wanted, and it kind of fit with how she defined herself. In this sense, there is a kind of continuity from the past, when she does speak on women’s issues, as first lady. But it also allows her to go to places, and she’s not just dealing with women. She’s dealing with those who were left out; she’s dealing with those who aren’t represented. She’s in a place where she can create a sense of an American connection to them, and she wants to be a voice for them.

Let’s deal with the email server thing and get your overview on that. What do you think was going on there? Was this an attempt to maintain her privacy? Was it a worry because of the things that had gone on in the past, so she was wary in thinking that secrecy was not a bad way to go? Why didn’t she understand how it might look eventually?

The short answer is, I don’t know. I wasn’t aware that she had had a private server, per se, you could email to her. But it wasn’t unusual to email to secretaries of state. They used email as well. My guess is that there was an element here that wanted to keep a number of things private. From this standpoint, I think she had felt burned by the past, and this was a way to again try to guard her privacy as a way of avoiding some of what she felt inevitably were the attacks that always come. And things would leak out otherwise, and they would be used against her. So I suspect that was probably what was going on.

But I didn’t know about it at the time. It’s something I’ve obviously thought about after it became known, but not beforehand.

A lapse to not understand that everything comes out at some point, and how this might — the blowback from it?

Well, these things are always clearer in retrospect than they are beforehand. For all those who say that, “Oh, she went in there because she was planning to be president all along,” someone who was planning to be president all along would not have done this precisely because, you know, you think through, all right, something like this could come out. This would be an embarrassment.

I think when she did this, it was more she was protecting her privacy. She wasn’t really thinking about the future as much as she was protecting her privacy. Maybe had she been more calculated — the image of her as being, oh, always calculating, and this is all about wanting to be president, if that was the case, she wouldn’t have done this.

But it is interesting the fact of she had been through a lot, in a lot of different times, where they — they, whoever “they” are — would come after her. I guess one does get a little more worried at some point, and one might make this type of mistake if one has gone through these things in the past. I mean, is that —

I think she obviously felt that there was a kind of constituency out there that was always out to get her. And you know, using this reduced the risk of leaks that could be used against her to try to embarrass her. My guess is that’s probably what drove this. But as I said, if this is someone who was really thinking, boy, I’m using this as a stepping-stone to the presidency, she wouldn’t have done this.

The people that sort of defined the “Hillary Doctrine” — what does the term mean?

… She, in my mind, all along had a somewhat different view of the world than the president. The president had a tendency, though less pronounced in the first term and more pronounced in the second term, to be very cautious, not just about the use of force but to look at the use of hard power as something that inevitably was going to be counterproductive. It wasn’t just that there was a hesitancy about it; it’s that, in his view of the world, there was kind of too much of an instinct to resort to the military too early on, on the one hand, and also to look at the use of hard power as the way to deal with adversaries or coerce adversaries.

His tendency was to look at adversaries and often think, let’s identify their grievance, and if we can address their grievance, we can change their behavior. Her view of the world is, like it or not, hard power is still one of the defining characteristics of it. Because of that, even though we don’t want to rush to use force, we can’t be hesitant to be thinking in coercive terms. Even if that doesn’t mean you have to use military force, it means you have to think about your leverage all the time. It means that when you want to change the behavior of an adversary, you’re thinking about how you make it clear to them that their interests are going to suffer.

So it’s a different kind of worldview. … The Hillary Doctrine, in my terminology, was a doctrine that basically said: you need American engagement. The president believes in American engagement, but [the Hillary Doctrine] is not minimalist engagement. She coined the word “smart power,” and what she meant by it was you use every instrument that you have that builds your leverage. Yes, soft power is important because it can affect your image and makes you attractive, but hard power is also something that unfortunately still helps to define the way the world works. And until global norms are accepted, you’d better demonstrate that there’s a consequence when you violate global norms.

She was much more instinctively, I think, driven by that view of the world than the president, who is an internationalist, but tends to be someone who’s more of a minimalist.

“My perception was that she felt she had been burned a number of times, and that makes someone cautious.”

When the Arab Spring breaks out, what does she think is happening? What is her reaction to it? And how does it differ with the president?

She initially is more sensitive to not wanting to look like you’re running away from those who have been your friends for 30 years, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak being the case. The reason for that is she’s convinced that it will have an effect with our other friends, not only in the Middle East but around the world as well, that American reliability is a currency that you don’t want to give up and you need to be very careful about.

The president, I think, is more mindful of, here is the arc of history bending toward justice. The real forces of change are not in the palaces; they’re in the squares. For the first two years of the administration, he has been the kind of real politician who has been reluctant to look like he was promoting democracy, because that looked too much like George W. Bush. And now, here are the forces for change, out in the squares, and you’ve got to be on the right side of history.

She is not indifferent to the fact that something significant is bubbling up in the Middle East. We need to understand it, but we need to manage it. She is more mindful of if you rush toward change, who’s capable of acting in the moment? She is more hesitant because she looks at groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and says they’re more organized. They can take advantage of this. They’re not democrats. We need to think in terms of how we shape change, because the wrong place to be is to look like you’re holding back the forces of change. That will come back to haunt you. But also, the wrong place to be is to be rushing into the unknown, because you don’t know which forces are going to end up dominating that landscape, and they may be much more problematic than even what you’re dealing with now.

What does that sort of philosophy say about her?

In a sense, she wants to manage change. She doesn’t want to hold it back, but she wants to create transitions, because she doesn’t think you can go from authoritarian regimes to democracy overnight, because there aren’t institutions for it. There isn’t the political culture that’s been established for it. So she wants to manage change. She wants to be identified with it. But she is mindful that, if you are rushing into it and you’re sort of attracted by what looks like these democratic forces, the problem is, they’re not organized. They’re not coherent. They don’t have a plan. They know how to organize the square; they don’t know how to organize the political party; they don’t know how to organize themselves for elections.

So she’s much more mindful of the fact that you’ve got to engage in the process where you build institutions, and it takes some time, and we need to learn the lessons from the past and try to incorporate them in a way that is most likely to work.

Let’s talk about Libya. As the Arab Spring spreads to Libya, Secretary Clinton is publicly and privately advocating for a coalition to intervene. She talked to you about this some, it’s been reported. What was her argument?

She’s more cautious than she had been presented. She is not this advocate for rushing in there. But as she begins to deal with the Europeans in particular, and she sees that they’re going to act if we don’t get in and help to shape it, she’s concerned if they act without us, that you’re going to end up creating a huge problem. She’s not one of those who is an early advocate for American intervention, but she sees the dynamics that are at play. Again, here’s someone who is a very managed-transition kind of person, and that’s her orientation.

She sees what’s going on in Europe; she sees what is a coalescence as well among the Arabs; and she sees the dynamic that we need to be part of, because we need to shape it. And if we’re not part of it, we don’t have a chance to shape it. So in the decisive meeting that we had, she was saying that we have to do more if we’re going to shape this, and there is the ability to have a broad coalition to do this.” So that’s her voice.

In that decisive meeting, when there’s people like [Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates who are saying, “We don’t have a vital interest there; we don’t need to do anything,” and there’s other people there, like [foreign policy adviser] Samantha Power, who are saying, “We’re going to have a bloodbath in Misurata, and then we’re going to have a bloodbath — we’ve already seen it in Misurata; we’re going to have a bloodbath in Benghazi,” she is not making the case, “We’ve got to do this because there’s going to be a bloodbath.” But she is saying, “This is going to have a life of its own, and we’re going to be left behind and not able to shape it unless we’re prepared to do more.”

How is she seen around that table, of all of Obama’s national security people and such? At this point in time, how is Hillary Clinton viewed?

She’s taken very seriously. Now, the reason is, when she weighs in, it’s almost always a kind of thoughtful presentation. By the time this is taking place, you’re … in the third year of the administration, and she’s built up a stock by that time that every time you have these meetings in the Situation Room, and the president starts off with her, she’s going to make a serious presentation about, “Here is what the circumstance is, and here is how I see our choices.” …

So once the intervention started, how did the president and Secretary Clinton differ in their feelings about the anxieties, certainly, in the beginning of what was going on and how long it was taking?

Look, there are two, I think, critical elements here. Again, they define what is a somewhat different worldview. In the president’s case, the impact of Iraq weighs so heavily that this question of “Tell me how this ends” is very much shaped by that concern — a fear of a slippery slope, a fear of getting sucked into a Middle East conflict, fear of having a large number of American forces on the ground. So he tries to frame our involvement in Libya from the very beginning. The initial decision that he makes is, we will act, but we will act for, say, 10 days, where our unique capabilities, which we have that no one else in the NATO alliance has, we will use those to basically take care of the air defense environment, the air defense threat. Once we have done that, then we turn it over to the alliance, and then we go into a supporting role. That will limit and avoid the risk of getting sucked into anything, number one. Number two, there will be no American boots on the ground.

Now, that immediately shapes what it’s going to take. But it’s not just how long it takes to succeed in this mission; it’s also once Qaddafi goes, it limits your ability to affect what’s going to happen after Qaddafi. She, from the beginning, is operating with, “OK, these are the constraints.” She’d like to push the edges of the constraints because she’s concerned that we can’t succeed if we’re too limited in terms of what we do. Our capacities are much greater than our allies’ capacity.

By the way, it’s not just because we have more military capability; it’s that we have a different set of experiences. We can fuse intelligence and military assets. We can immediately spot where we need to strike, and we’re able to then create an action option for that immediately. Almost none of our allies can do that. So they don’t have the logistic capability. They don’t have the intelligence capability. They don’t have the kind of fused — the integration of the military with the intelligence. Now, they will acquire some of that during the course of the Libyan mission. But again, she sees our unique capabilities on the one hand, and also oftentimes I will hear her say, “We need to put skin in the game. When we put skin in the game, it puts us in a position where we have leverage on others to get them to do more. If we don’t have enough skin in the game, it becomes very hard to persuade them to do the things we want them to do.”

… When Qaddafi is killed, what’s her reaction?

Well, I think she sees it as, OK, we have succeeded now because here is a conflict that began to drag on. It wasn’t going to end. There was an effort during this period to get messages to him, to try to find a way to get him to leave without having to carry this out. There were ways to try to resolve this diplomatically, but he wasn’t responsive.

So when he is killed, she sees this, OK, we have a chance to succeed in the mission now, because the symbol that is stretching out the military conflict, on the one hand, is gone. And we can bring the military side of this, you know, that can come to an end. But now we’ve got to be sure that we stand up for something. So she was working hard to create this kind of Friends of Libya group that would be effective in terms of helping to create institutions and governance.

Was this an example of the Hillary Doctrine?

Well, I think it was. Again, she’s more forward-leaning, but she’s more forward-leaning within the constraints that the president sets, because what she really needed to make this work was not just this coalition of help to help stand up the institutions; it needed to help provide enough security on the ground.

The interesting thing is, there were obviously a number of different militias; they were shaped as much by location and tribes as anything else. But their numbers were small. If you had put together an international force of 10,000 whose role was to help ensure order, and whose role was to then train and stand up what was a security force, [and] you could integrate militias into security force, your ability to transform Libya would have been much greater than it turned out to be.

But the prohibition on no boots on the ground meant we wouldn’t make any such contribution, and it became hard to get others then to make any such contributions.

So as you said, that doesn’t happen. And as the months pass, things kind of go downhill.


What happened? And what went wrong?

I think that the inability to focus enough on creating coherence — and to be fair, part of the problem is that the Libyans are saying, “We don’t want this; we’ll do this on our own.” And they are so fractious; it’s so hard to get coherence. … There is a legacy from Qaddafi. He broke down all the institutions. And this was deliberate on his part. He played on tribal differences. This was deliberate on his part. So you’re dealing with people who are also from different parts of Libya, reflecting different realities on the ground. And you’re also dealing with the fact that there is a limit as to how much we are prepared to do. We are taken as kind of the symbol by others that, if we will hold back, well, don’t expect them to do more.

She is trying to operate within a setting where she’s trying to push others to do more, to bolster what are the pragmatic forces in Libya that she sees. And it’s hard to make that work. …

And she’s pushing the president?

She’s trying to push the president, yeah.

“Her view of the world is, like it or not, hard power is still one of the defining characteristics of it. Because of that, even though we don’t want to rush to use force, we can’t be hesitant to be thinking in coercive terms.”

To do what?

To grant us more capability, allow us to do more. If we can’t formally put boots on the ground, can we put more intelligence assets on the ground? Can we provide some more covert assistance? Are there ways for us to do this that gives us more leverage, that gives us more capability? …

What’s her frustration at this point, as it appears, basically, things are spinning out of control?

Her frustration is, it’s hard to weight it. What I mean by that is, she is frustrated by what she’s having to deal with on the outside, but she’s also frustrated by the constraints on the inside. She sees it in a relationship between the two, because [it’s] harder to influence others when there’s a limitation on how much we are prepared to commit. And I think this is what you will also see play out later in Syria as well.

So when Ambassador [Christopher] Stevens is killed, what’s her reaction?

Well, I didn’t see her in that immediate period, so I’m getting this from a distance, but I think it was very hard for her. I think it was very hard for her because she also had gotten to know him, and he was kind of the profile of what you want in the foreign service and what she saw as kind of the epitome of the best of the foreign service. This is someone who didn’t want walls. This was someone who was always out engaging. This was someone who pushed very hard to have the constant presence in Benghazi.

I think she saw him as, this is really the model of what we want to be promoting in the foreign service, because this makes us much more effective. Again, he’s kind of the best of the foreign service. He’s the embodiment of the American brand. He reaches out wherever he is. He creates a connection with people, and that adds to our ability to be effective. It adds to the appeal of the United States.

So I think it hit her very hard. Really, emotionally, I think this was a very tough period for her. And I get that more secondhand than firsthand.

What’s your estimation of how she responded at that time?

I think she immediately put together what was a group to look at, how did this happen? How could it have happened? How were we in a position where something like this could have happened? She wanted a no-holds-barred review of this, because I think she felt again, she felt the loss very personally. It was an emotional thing for her, and she felt that we send people out there, we bear responsibility for them. So she wanted [to know] what had gone wrong and what had we missed; you know, what was it that we should have been doing that we didn’t do?

So the controversy that grows out of this, from your point of view, what is it all about?

I do think it’s overly politicized. I think there’s a real issue there, but it’s not the one that’s being addressed. The real issue is, can you have a diplomatic outpost in a place where there’s no local authority? That’s the issue. We have no embassy in the world that we are the ones responsible for protecting. Our Marine presence is a deterrent presence. But ultimately, if you have 10,000 people who set up on an embassy, 50 Marines, even when you augment the Marine presence, that’s an augmented Marine presence; [it] can’t protect that embassy. Every embassy’s security is based upon the local authority, the local state.

So when you don’t have a local authority, can you afford to have a diplomatic outpost? That is the issue that should have been addressed. But because the issue was overly politicized, that was not what was being challenged.

And the blame that the Republicans in Congress were pointing toward her? Your impression of that.

Again, I think that they wanted to politicize the issue as opposed to get to the bottom of the issue. You know, I’m not saying this was true of all Republicans. I told people when I would be up on the Hill, I said: “Look, there is an issue here. And the issue is, let’s deal with this larger question. We’re living now in a world where there are more non-state actors. Yet on the one hand, we want diplomatic presence because it allows us a greater awareness of what’s going on. It creates the potential for us to shape our policy more appropriately and implement it better. But we’ve got to weigh that against the security risks that we’re taking. We have to look at what are the kind of security parameters that have to be guiding us as we think about any kind of diplomatic presence.” If you’re going to pay appropriate homage to someone like Chris Stevens, then that’s the issue that you have to take on.

There are probably few American officials who in some ways were better able to deal with controversy like this than Hillary. She’s been through the crucible a few times before. She goes before the Benghazi Committee and testifies for hour after hour.


Talk a little bit about that experience, how she came out of that. Did she talk to you about it?

No. I didn’t talk to her about it.

Then give me your impressions, though, of that, and her position, and sort of how she used that experience.

I think it shows something about her that maybe hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated. There was a stoicism to her. She understood what the big issue here was. And as I said, she was still reeling in a lot of ways emotionally because of what had happened. I think she wanted to take this on and say, “Look, here is what really matters here.” I think she withstood a lot of this, but I think at the point where she said, “What really matters here? You want to focus on things that don’t really matter here. Let’s deal with what really matters here,” I think her capacity to sort of deal with this also shows a kind of steely resolve as well.

You put it well. She has been through the crucibles. She’s experienced these things. She knows how to cope with crisis. And this was a crisis, because again, what had been lost? For her it was a crisis because of what had been lost. So she was going to cope with this because there were larger issues that were involved. Yeah, they want to attack her? OK, that she took as a given, which again, for her, that’s what she’s experienced. That’s Washington, you know. This wasn’t new to her. “They want to attack me? I can deal with when they want to attack me. I can manage that. What I want to do is, I want to fix this problem for the future.”

Looking back at her time as secretary of state, how did it change her? How is she different now than the woman, the candidate who ran for president in 2008?

From a substantive standpoint … she has a worldview, and the worldview hasn’t been transformed fundamentally. It’s been refined, because I think she looks at what is a more chaotic world. She looks at the tools that America has. She understands, you know, we can’t be the world’s policemen, and yet we have to play a leading role.

I think she’s probably given more thought to how you play that role, how you do it within the confines of what’s politically sustainable. You know, a policy that isn’t sustainable ultimately is a wrongheaded policy. I think she’s thought a lot about these things. I think that she is, at least as it relates to international relations and how America deals with what is a world characterized by more conflict, by struggles over identity, I think she brings to that much more than she would have had in 2009, partly also [as a result of] just the experience of living through a lot of this.

She’s more seasoned, because you can’t have played this role and not become more seasoned. And I think she probably has something else. She probably has a better idea of what it is she would like to do as president because of this experience. I think in 2009, you know, she had run in 2008, and she had the experience of eight years in the White House as first lady. Well, add on four years of secretary of state, that’s a whole new dimension. What she brings to it is, probably in her mind, a much better sense of what it is she will confront as president, a much better sense of how you have to define your priorities, a recognition of what’s the political capital she’s going to have, and how does she want to spend it? I suspect all that is more developed than it was in 2009.

You know her well. There’s a lot of reasons not to have run, you know. It’s not an easy task. What motivates her? Why do you think she’s running for president?

I think she has a very strong public service ethic and in the end a feeling that there are things she can do that she wants to do, and she’s more capable of doing it as president than anything else. That probably defines her. You’re quite right. She knows all the rigors, she knows all the pain, and yet this kind of deeper sense of a public service ethic, I think that’s what drives her as much as anything.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Former Boeing 737 Max Pilot Pleads Not Guilty to Federal Grand Jury Indictment
Mark Forkner’s role at Boeing leading up to the crashes that killed 346 people was detailed by The New York Times and FRONTLINE in ‘Boeing’s Fatal Flaw.’
October 15, 2021
PANDORA PAPERS: Video & Major Stories From Our Partners
Watch the trailer for an upcoming FRONTLINE investigation into the Pandora Papers, exposing how U.S. trusts are sheltering millions in controversial assets, and read major stories from our ICIJ partners.
October 14, 2021
‘I Cannot Protect Her’: A Granddaughter Gone Missing. A Leading Activist Unable to Help.
As FRONTLINE’s Najibullah Quraishi was interviewing women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj in Afghanistan, something unexpected happened.
October 12, 2021
‘Brink of Collapse': How Frozen Assets & Halted Foreign Aid Are Impacting the Afghan People
Even before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the country was facing a drought, the ravages of the COVID pandemic, mass displacement and civilian casualties reaching record levels. And then came the freezing of assets and international aid.
October 12, 2021