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Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power

Benghazi.

It’s become the code word, the symbol, for any Hillary Clinton bashers accusing her of a deadly combination of ineptitude and unscrupulous behavior as America’s secretary of state.

First, of course, “Benghazi” means the death of ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on their Benghazi compound in September 2012. The code word also suggests Clinton’s initial public claims that the attack wasn’t terrorism, but part of anti-American protests elsewhere in the Middle East. Then a congressional investigation into Benghazi revealed Clinton’s email problems. And the world learned that the secretary of state told her family and the public different accounts of the attack.

But author Mark Landler, a veteran New York Times White House correspondent, has a different take. To him, the real Benghazi issue isn’t Clinton’s actions and words after the attack; it’s what she and President Obama failed to do in the weeks and months between the firing of Tomahawks into Tripoli and the Benghazi attack. And that included the State Department’s rejecting requests to provide more security personnel in Libya.

“They made exactly the same mistake in Libya that they accused Bush of in Iraq,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Landler. “Failure to plan for what comes after the bad guy is gone.”

“Alter Egos” is the story of the complex, nuanced, fascinating, hot/cold relationship between one-time presidential rivals who later teamed up as president and secretary of state.

There have been few such complicated relationships in U.S. history between a sitting president and his secretary of state.

Landler points out the obvious contrast in basic foreign-policy philosophies. In a word, Clinton is more of a hawk, while Obama believes the U.S. resorts too readily to military force to defend our interests.

But the differences between the two go much deeper than ideology. Those differences are generational, cultural, even temperamental, the author writes.

Clinton is a midwesterner, a product of the Cold War, shaped by her husband’s rationale for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. Obama is a child of the Pacific Rim, whose most formative foreign-policy lessons may have come from American’s mistakes in Iraq.

“I can sum up my foreign policy in one phrase,” Obama told Landler and other reporters aboard Air Force One in April 2014. “Don’t do stupid [stuff].”

As Landler writes, “ ... Obama was intent to hit singles and doubles, hewing to his foreign-policy version of the Hippocratic oath.”

Clinton is more complicated, some of that due to her different roles vis-a-vis Obama. They started as presidential rivals in 2008. Then, as secretary of state, she served as the ultimate “good soldier,” keenly aware that she served under him. And finally after leaving the State Department, the future 2016 presidential candidate was free to distance herself again from Obama’s policies.

This is no quick, breezy read, although Landler writes well and opens most chapters with revealing anecdotes about the main players. This book will appeal to foreign-policy wonks craving a highly detailed account of all the intrigue, tensions and political issues between two of our nation’s leading public figures over hot spots like Egypt, Cuba, Israel, Syria and Libya.

Casual readers need not apply.

Landler is a relentless reporter, using emails, interviews, public statements and other sources to detail the personal interactions among the two main characters and a host of key foreign-policy players, including Susan Rice, Gates, Richard Holbrooke and Sidney Blumenthal.

To his credit, Landler never oversimplifies the Clinton-Obama relationship. Both were capable of tweaking their positions on the trickiest foreign-policy issues, and their various positions often had some inherent contradictions.

The most remarkable thing about this book: With all his research and insight, the author refuses to take sides. Neither Clinton nor Obama wears a halo or devil’s horns here. Instead, we see them as extremely capable but flawed foreign-policy makers; in short, entirely human.

The author describes Obama as prickly, even distant, and more unyielding than Clinton about his foreign-policy positions.

“After running against her, recruiting her, mourning the lost diplomats of Benghazi with her, and wrestling with her on issues from Syria to Richard Holbrooke, Obama seemed to have accepted Clinton for the political animal she was.”

This reader took one main inference from this book. Foreign policy may be any president’s most impossible challenge, sorting through each region’s history, its culture and its main players, while trying to dodge all the tricky political concerns at home and across the world. No president has a home-field advantage when it comes to foreign affairs.

Wonder how Donald Trump would navigate all those land mines.

Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power

By Mark Landler

Random House

406 pages, $28

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter and election observer.

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