Hillary Clinton’s emails publicly released

Beginning in May 2015, the US State Department released pages of Hillary Clinton’s email exchanges as per a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) review. Judicial Watch, the “conservative, non-partisan education foundation” which filed the request, argues that Clinton’s exclusive use of a personal email account for official correspondence during her tenure as Secretary of State (2009-2013) reflects a lack of transparency and an effort to evade federal laws governing public access to State records. The thousands of emails, now publicly accessible online through State Department and WikiLeaks archives, include the lively discussions that took place amongst US officials on January 14 and the months following Tunisia’s revolution.

In the context of these dialogues concerning Tunisian politics and civil society, the emails are an intriguing glimpse into the communications of Clinton and her staff team at the US State Department. Sparse are the former Secretary of State’s own comments and questions amidst the news articles, updates, and advice relayed during the pivotal moments of revolution. The disclosed exchange sheds light on a cast of key characters and their roles in informing the decisions, diplomatic phone calls, and initiatives that constitute US response to what was unfolding in Tunisia. Central to and consistent throughout communications are a focus media as a reflection and determinant of public opinion, and an interest in the opening up of political space in Tunisia as a singular opportunity for both countries.

US State Department on Tunisia: cast of characters

Clinton’s participation in these online conversations generally limited to brief interjections and one-line requests, it is mostly through the words of aides, advisors, and speechwriters that the most interesting points materialize. Huma Abedin, formerly Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff and now the Vice Chairwoman of her election campaign, sent dozens of news briefs leading up to and following the revolution, Reuters and AP articles on protests, government officials, and elections in Tunisia. Jake Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff with Abedin and currently the top foreign policy advisor for Clinton’s election campaign, provided task lists, speaking points, briefings, and “interesting reads” to prepare Clinton for interviews and talks. As Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale submitted assessments based on meetings and workshops held in Tunisia. Former Chief of Staff and counselor for Clinton, Cheryl Mills (who also defended President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial, and served on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign) provided a gamut of military and political updates as well as articles concerning Internet freedom. Serving as Assistant Secretary of State for the Department of Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman reported on his meetings and phone calls with Tunisian contacts and officials, sharing observations, projections, and recommendations concerning political players and the possibilities and risks associated with the transfer of power.

Opening up political space: “This is a real opportunity”

In the suspenseful hours between January 14 and 15, Feltman’s communications appear to have been at the center of coordinating Clinton’s phone call to Ben Ali’s Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane. Feltman relayed information and observations of Tunisia’s political scene to the State Department team. Confirming the permanence of Ben Ali’s departure and imminence of a power transfer, he wrote on January 14, « As disgusting as we found the Ben Ali regime, it is important that the interim government gets off to a solid start…” The following day, Feltman reported on a long phone conversation with an individual—whose name has been blotted out in the archives—who suggested that “we should encourage the Tunisian officials like FM Morjane (“a good guy”) to reach out to Tunisia’s moderate opposition figures and bring them in.” “As for us,” Feltman continues, “he cautioned us against chest-thumping triumphant statements. The story isn’t over, he cautioned…” At the end of his message, Feltman concludes what is mentioned several times throughout the correspondence: “This is a real opportunity.”

Media coverage: perception of US as a strategic partner

Can we be sure to get press (positive, of course!) in the region?” Hillary Clinton in an email to Jeffrey Sullivan during State Department operation in Djerba

On February 12, Feltman wrote that “We had a AID/State assessment team in Tunisia, and it came up with a good general approach (i.e., the US supports civil society, NGOs, the media, etc., where the Europeans will support government functions in support of free and fair elections).” Short though her tenure may have been at the State Department, Judith McHale’s messages concerning the unprecedented Democracy Transition Team elaborated on these themes and the idea thatTunisia provides us with unique opportunities to pilot approaches in outreach.” She underlined the need to focus on media, not only in terms of US training for reporting on elections and political affairs in Tunisia, but in terms of coverage as a measure and shaper of public opinion. Focused on “enhancing the perception of the US as a strategic partner,” McHale wrote to Clinton in June 2011 urging the latter to “Note that some of the activities are beginning to get positive media coverage which is one of the things we are looking for.”

…perception of US as a purveyor of meddlesome policies

Much as the FOIA investigation has stirred debate in the US around Clinton’s candor and transparency, her visit in March 2011 to Tunis stirred general anti-US sentiment and earned the secretary of state an outpouring of negative press for her perceived failure to engage with some of the very civil society actors she commended for being at the forefront of changes.

Around 300 Tunisians protest ahead of Clinton visit” is the title of a news article which Huma Abedin forwarded to Clinton on March 14. Three days before her arrival in Tunis, Reuters reported on demonstrations in which participants chanted “No to US meddling in Tunisia’s affairs” and “Tunisia free, US out.” Whereas McHale expressed intentions to “dramatically expand our engagement with Tunisian media, with a particular focus on the social media activists who played such a critical role in the revolution,” it was precisely the latter who were incensed by the secretary of state’s unexpected appearance on Nessma TV. The interview—at the end of which Clinton thanked Nessma TV, “not Ben Ali’s favorite television station, from what I am told”—was a perceived affront to many bloggers and journalists who had anticipated the opportunity to ask their own questions at a press conference.

Clinton maintains a reputation for her hawkish approach to foreign policy, followed now as she is by “her conventional diplomatic failures, like the cataclysmic civil war in Libya, a conflict Clinton has worked so hard to stroke that the Washington Post in 2011 called it “Hillary’s War.” By some accounts, however, “Clinton’s Legacy in Tunisia is a Bit Brighter.” The narrative that “maybe little Tunisia is Clinton’s State Department success story, the example of a foreign policy accomplishment,” is one often recounted since 2011 in western media’s mainstream outlets. It is, of course, a narrative that is more interested in the “greatness” of western democracies than it is the realities and nuances of transition in “little Tunisia.”  The disclosed emails provide perspective on how these sorts of clichés begin, how the generalized and romanticized image of Tunisia-the-bright-spot-of-the-Arab-world is tailored to serve US policies and budget plans and decision makers more than it is to serve the social and economic realities of Tunisians. And so while the Department of State pursues a tireless quest for positive media coverage, it remains that what is not said in major headlines is where we can discern the geopolitical and electoral strategies that shape US interest in and support for Tunisia.