Outside, the world is coming undone. Chinese and Japanese fighter jets play chicken high over the East China Sea, menacing one another within a dare-devilish 30-metre striking distance. In Iraq, a worse-than-the-Taliban insurgency captures the northern city of Mosul and is marching on Baghdad, bringing the war-torn country to the brink of a Sunni-Shiite civil conflict.
But in a small, elegant suite on the 18th floor of one of New York's grand old hotels, the Peninsula, we're perched high above the insanity of the world - or at the very least, the pell-mell distractions of Fifth Avenue - as Hillary Rodham Clinton takes time to reflect on her four-year term as US secretary of state that ended last year, America's place in the world, and how Australia might fit into that equation.
The 66-year-old is here spruiking her new memoir, Hard Choices, for which she was reportedly paid a $14 million advance by her publisher Simon & Schuster, and for which I'm granted a prized - and strictly timed - 20-minute interview.
There are gripping passages in Clinton's book: her account of the 2011 raid in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by a US Navy SEAL team in Pakistan; the fraught negotiations with Beijing to enable the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng to leave China after he sought refuge at the US Embassy in 2012. There are sparse references to Australia in the 635-page tome, which is why I steer our interview towards matters antipodean. Almost immediately she's lecturing Australia - about its massive trade dependency on China, and on the role and rights of women in politics.
Dressed in her trademark pants suit - today it's steel grey - the likely Democratic nominee to succeed Barack Obama in the White House is characteristically blunt when she discusses what's known as Washington's "pivot" to Asia - the US's bid to reassert of its authority in the Pacific, announced by Obama during his visit to Australia in 2012. In her book, Clinton claims credit for the "pivot", writing that it was her brainchild, born in her first weeks at Foggy Bottom, as Washingtonians call the sprawling State Department campus in DC.
Clinton cuts me off when I mention Australia's growing economic dependence on China, and in particular Trade Minister Andrew Robb leading a 630-strong Australian trade mission through China in April. "It's a mistake, whether you're a country or a company or an individual, to put - as we say in the vernacular - all your eggs in one basket ... It makes you dependent, to an extent that can undermine your freedom of movement and your sovereignty - economic and political." Europe made the same mistake by becoming too dependent on gas from Russia, she warns. "Starting in March 2009, I made that case to the Europeans ... they'd already had two experiences in 2006 and 2009 when, for their own purposes, Russia cut off the gas, actually causing people to freeze to death - in Poland and elsewhere. Important work had to start, with the Europeans developing alternative [sources of gas]. I think they are slowly doing that now.”
China, with its insatiable appetite for natural resources, is now Australia's biggest trading partner, accounting for more than 35 per cent of our trade. "I'm not in any way underestimating the difficulties that diversification requires ...," she notes, "but there are so many opportunities that could be pursued, that would make the trading relationships, the economic dependency, you know, less acute - whether it's Europe or Australia or anywhere else.”
Seemingly, Beijing's objective is to undermine US leadership by being aggressive towards neighbours who are American allies, to make the psychologically persuasive point that Washington will not stand up to China on their behalf. Obama's reluctance to use force is apparent in the daily news about Syria, Iran, Ukraine and now Iraq. The Chinese would have been mightily pleased when, in a big policy speech in late May, Obama told military cadets at West Point, New York: "When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction, but do not directly threaten us - then the threshold for [American] military action must be higher.”
Was that the sound of a pivot snapping, I ask Clinton. "I think we are better off having made the pivot than had we not," she answers somewhat defensively, "because when I became secretary of state, the overwhelming message from our friends in Asia - including the then Australian government - was that the US had been absent, that we had left the field and were totally focused on the Middle East and the wars that we were waging [in Iraq and Afghanistan].”
As Clinton explains it, by the time she became secretary of state in 2009, after nearly a decade of former president George W. Bush's "War on Terror", Canberra was clamouring for a US presence in the Asia-Pacific, as an essential balance to China's growing military and economic might. I wonder aloud if the changing regional dynamic requires a re-examination of the ANZUS treaty, for the architecture of the Canberra-Washington alliance to be reconfigured for a challenging new century? Clinton equivocates. "Well, I'd argue it serves its purpose. That doesn't mean that every line is as crucial today as it was when it was first written, and there is always room for updating and modernising any relationship. "But ... if I were in Asia, if I were a citizen of an Asian country, I would very much want to have strong relations that balanced one another with the United States and with China. I would not want to be left to my own devices to try to deal with what appears to me to be an increasingly aggressive posture by the Chinese leadership and the Chinese military to dominate the Asia-Pacific." Is this a velvet-gloved version of George W. Bush's "You're either with us or against us" warning to the world after the 9/11 attacks?
The operatic arc of Clinton's life is seriously spectacular. Here it is in four lines, as told by New York Times columnist Gail Collins: "Controversial first lady to betrayed first lady to beloved first lady; clumsy carpetbagging Senate candidate to New York treasure. Failed presidential candidate to international icon. The theme, it seemed to me, was that you play the cards you're dealt.”
Is Hard Choices, then, a thoughtful backward glance by a former policy-maker, or is it the calculated forward thinking of a likely presidential candidate, not yet ready to confirm that indeed she'll make another run for the presidency? The latter may explain why the book is surprisingly free of talk-show revelations designed to drive up book sales and increase royalties. "Low-salt, low-fat, low-calorie offering with vanilla pudding as the dessert," is the withering assessment by John Dickerson, Slate's chief political correspondent.
I'm confused by the book's many seeming contradictions. Clinton regrets not doing enough to foster the "Green Revolution" in Iran in 2009-10, but she rebukes White House youngsters who were "swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment" for being too gung-ho about the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011. She regrets her vote for George W. Bush's war in Iraq, but wanted to do more to help the rebels in Syria. Hindsight can be a convenient thing.
A few days after we meet, the Clinton book tour arrives in Washington where, during a Q&A at George Washington University, she excoriates Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government, which "[can't] inspire loyalty even among its army" and is "dysfunctional, unrepresentative and authoritarian". And, unlike the Iranian protesters and the Syrian rebels, she's not of a mind for the US to provide any military help to Iraq "at this time". Clinton's acknowledgement of the error in her 2002 vote as a US senator to go to war in Iraq is her most explicit to date of a "mistake that became more painful" with each condolence letter she had to write to New York families who had "lost a son or daughter, a father or mother" in the war - one that cost almost 5000 American lives and cost the US economy $2 trillion.
This is the first time Clinton has publicly used the word "mistake" to describe her vote - it was one of the key reasons she lost to Barack Obama in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. And there could be more grief: reporters are revisiting the visitor logs that reveal very few members of Congress bothered to go to a secure reading room in which they could read classified intelligence assessments - several who read them later revealed the documents helped convince them to vote against invading Iraq. Clinton writes that she voted for war "after weighing the evidence ... [I] made the best decision I could with the information I had" - but there's no mention of her finding her way to the reading room.
Is she haunted by the deaths of so many young soldiers? "Well, of course. I ... I mean, we just celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and I just watched a documentary about those young Americans storming the beaches and being cut down. Any time there's war, and certainly one in which you observe from a front-row seat, where lives are lost and injuries are sustained, it is deeply distressing. And as I say in the book, I, you know, voted to give the president the authority, and I regretted the way he used it, and my vote was a mistake.”
Ask Clinton if the US might have executed a smarter response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and she doesn't see beyond the military campaign. "You know, I was a senator from New York," she says. "I flew over Ground Zero the next morning, I knew people who had lost loved ones, who were grievously injured - there was certainly no alternative but to respond.
"Whether it could have been done differently, historians will have to decide that, but I was very much in favour of giving the Taliban a direct choice: they could surrender or oust al-Qaeda [from Afghanistan] or face the consequences. They refused to break with al-Qaeda, and they had to face the consequences.”
I invite her to indulge a bit of hindsight, to look at the seeming disintegration of Iraq and at the uncertain future that confronts Afghanistan's 30 million people. She segues direct to Afghanistan. "Well, I think Afghanistan is much better off today." Like so many "War on Terror" Coalition country politicians whose security details rarely allowed them to venture "outside the wire" - which is to go beyond the perimeter of heavily fortified military and diplomatic posts in Afghanistan - Clinton goes to the issue of women's rights as a measure of progress. She is seemingly reluctant to acknowledge that many traditional power-brokers in Afghanistan have been happy to go along with this "Western nonsense", just as long as they could keep skimming the donor billions pouring into the country.
"Well, you and I disagree," says Clinton. "The difference in the quality of life for many Afghans today is night and day. I speak as someone who is very proud that millions of girls are in school, that tens of thousands have graduated from university, that women are holding positions of responsibility in the parliament and in the government. We can't do any more than to give the Afghans themselves the chance. They have just completed a successful presidential election [and] have a huge amount of work ahead, to see whether they can consolidate anything resembling a democracy.”
Does she seriously believe that any of this is sustainable? "We don't know yet! We don't know! But we've given them the chance to determine how sustainable it is and we'll have to see if [the new president] is capable of consolidating more of the country, around the constitution and the laws.
"But I mean, you compare what was there in 2001 with what is there today, and I think that Australia, the US, all of our allies, have given the people of Afghanistan, including its women, a fighting chance for a better life and a potentially sustainable democracy.”
I'm keen to hear Clinton's impressions of the Australian leaders she's met at official engagements. In her book, she mentions Kevin Rudd only as former foreign minister Stephen Smith's boss. I'm left wondering if Clinton is of the school of thought, recently articulated by Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent Mark Kenny, that rates the Mandarin-speaking Rudd as a pain in the arse who "managed to annoy everyone, starting with the Japanese, followed by the Chinese, and quickly extending to many in the US political community".
But no, Rudd gets a Clinton tick of approval. "Well, I appreciated [his] intelligent analysis," says Clinton. "He was a very strong advocate of the US becoming more engaged in the Asia-Pacific, particularly multilateral organisations like ASEAN or the East-Asia Summit, which are the meeting places for leaders of the Asia-Pacific. He was a good guide to what was happening, and a good friend in advising us as we made the pivot.”
However, on Julia Gillard, the former secretary of state is passionate - and very angry. There is a well-reported, bracketed reference in Clinton's book to the "outrageous sexism" faced by Australia's first woman prime minister, which, she writes, "shouldn't be tolerated in any country". During our chat, Clinton has difficulty finding the right words as she recalls an APEC meeting at Vladivostok, in the Russian far east, in 2012: "I was with [Gillard] at the meeting, where she learnt that her father had died, and the idea that people in the media or political positions were using the death of her father as a way of attacking her was so ... extraordinary, so ... hard to accept, so beyond the pale, so ...”
Alan Jones, take a bow. Clinton does not mention the Sydney broadcaster by name, but she is alluding to the controversy, within weeks of Gillard quitting the APEC conference to return to Australia to be with her grieving mother, in which Jones regaled a Sydney University Liberal Club audience with his claim that 83-year-old John Gillard had "died of shame" because he had "a daughter who told lies every time she stood for parliament".
Initially, Gillard refused to comment. But weeks later, in an impassioned speech reported around the world, she accused then opposition leader Tony Abbott of "repulsive double standards" on misogyny and sexism. She berated Abbott for standing next to "Ditch the witch" placards that demeaned her as a woman and a prime minister. Clinton tells me: "I have talked to [Gillard] about it. I was disappointed because there's plenty of room to disagree on political issues. I would be the last person you would find in the world who'd say you don't have a right to contest somebody's policy, to question the analysis, to vigorously argue against the opposition leader, but so much of it was very personal. I'm not making a brief for her policies or politics, but I thought it was quite unfortunate that her gender, personal life and characteristics were injected into what should have been a vigorous debate about decisions.”
Asked whether she thinks Australians or Americans are now more likely to elect a female leader, Clinton quips: "Well, you've done it, we haven't." On being reminded that Gillard became prime minister in a mid-term coup, she says: "Well, that's true, but her party elected her and they were the, you know, the majority party, so ...”
Reflecting on Gillard's experience, Clinton says more broadly: "Look, sexism is present everywhere. It ... it doesn't reside in one place to the exclusion of others. It's manifest in many different ways. There's a double standard about women in public life, whether it be in the corporate boardroom or the parliament. And it's a continuing obstacle for women who are interested in making their mark in the public area. You have to be prepared to deal with it, but hopefully it will diminish over time, and quit being an excuse to block women's ambitions, and not stand in the way of moving toward real equality between men and women.”
That's a neat segue to the 2016 presidential campaign. Clinton's frantic book tour reveals how her campaign might unfold- if/when she decides to run. She is trailed on tour by a cheer squad bus from the multimillion-dollar Ready for Hillary PAC (political action committee). On the other side, the book and its author's every utterance are being dissected for crimes against the Republican Party world view by the multimillion-dollar Stop Hillary PAC.
For years, Clinton has consistently polled in the US as the country's most admired woman, though this year there has been a bit of a slide, into the mid-50s, in her "viewed favourably" rating in regular Gallup Polls. Her book events pull doting crowds, sometimes in the thousands. As fans and followers pass through security checks before queuing to have a book signed, banal declarations are heard, such as, "I love the Clintons.”
Clinton dug a hole for herself in the opening TV interview of the tour, crying poor about how she and former president Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001 "not only dead broke but in debt". There were shades of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's boast that his wife "Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs" when Clinton declared that "we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses ..." That "s" in the word "mortgages" is not a typographical error. And Clinton didn't seem to get it during the Hard Choices tour when she was asked how average wage earners might relate to her sense of hardship in paying mortgages for houses worth millions. There are questions, too, about the stratospheric speech fees she and her husband command and the family's closeness to the very big end of town. Wonderment, too, that NBC News would pay the novice Chelsea Clinton $600,000 a year for her occasional and very pedestrian reports for the network - well above the $100,000 to $200,000 commanded by network reporters with years of experience. The surprise will be if Clinton decides not to run for the White House - when asked if she might, she offers many more reasons for running than for not running. And with political genes like those in her family, claims like, "I really like my life ... I'm looking forward to being a grandmother", don't have the ring of conviction.
In the absence of a signature achievement as secretary of state, like a Middle East peace deal, Clinton will be hounded by the other side about the Benghazi attack, in which the US ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was one of four Americans murdered in 2012 (one of the alleged perpetrators of which was snatched during a secret US raid in Libya earlier this month).
A review of her book in The Guardian describes her Benghazi chapter as "not so much a non-denial denial as a piece of non-political politics" that will fail to silence critics. And Republican axemen will be after her for this line to a reporter on Benghazi: "I take responsibility - but I was not making security decisions." Clinton already stands accused of complicity in this year's mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls - because she did not classify the Islamist Boko Haram as a terrorist movement. And there is a whisper campaign to have Americans believe that she's sick in the head - supposedly the result of a blood clot near her brain after a fall at home in 2012. A "traumatic brain injury", declared former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a much-criticised and condemned TV appearance.
If there is a contest for the Democratic nomination, some on her own side will challenge Clinton for wanting to "surge" more troops into Afghanistan and to keep them there longer; for urging Obama to bomb Libya - now a basket case; and for reneging on an offer in the 2008 nomination race to "draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home [from Iraq]" in the first 60 days of a Hillary Clinton administration.
For all her talk about "smart" power, candidate Clinton will be challenged on what Americans would describe as her urge "to kick butt". One of her former advisers, Middle East specialist Dennis Ross, told The New York Times: "It's not that she's quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses of hard power.”
Republicans are so bereft of a willing, plausible presidential candidate for 2016 that even Mitt Romney is being encouraged to step up for what would be his third run. And while many Democrats say that their party's nomination is Clinton's if she wants it, some want to give the former secretary of state a run for her money - to which end they want to draft high-profile Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
A race between two women would demolish the "we must make history" imperative of Clinton being the first woman candidate. More importantly, the Democratic Party these days is less inclined to abide by establishment diktats, and Clinton's big business connections would make it difficult for her to go as far as many rank-and-file Democrats want on introducing financial reform in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Warren is one of the few who can awaken evangelical passion in Democrats. She draws crowds and raises cash; videos of her speeches go viral. And she will continue to firm as a nomination prospect with reports such as that recently published in Politico newspaper, in which a Republican-leaning Wall Street-type was quoted saying "we" would be just as happy with either a President Hillary Clinton or a President Jeb Bush (a former Florida governor and George W. Bush's brother).
Like Tony Abbott, Hillary Clinton knows her Deng Xiaoping. She quotes the late Chinese politician and reformer on what is described as his "hide and bide" strategy as China surged during his post-Mao Zedong leadership: "Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.”
If that were the criteria for deciding on another tilt at the presidency, and not a dogged "It's my turn" sense of entitlement, would Hillary Rodham Clinton be a candidate in 2016?