Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Secretary of State Clinton?

I have been most underwhelmed by Obama's rumored choice of Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State.
There's no doubt Senator Clinton is in many ways qualified for the position, and has more backbone than the average Democrat. However, the selection betrays Obama's lack of serious interest in foreign policy (which is really a primary concern for a President) and makes sense only in narrowly domestic political calculations.
Putting Senator Clinton in the State Department would go far towards neutering her as a political threat in 2012, in the event Obama (as I think likely) proves as successful a President as Jimmy Carter. Offering the job also temporarily quiets upset supporters of the former First Lady who might still be wondering what the Hell happened from Iowa forward. The State Department also keeps her away from more interesting Democratic domestic priorities, such as health care. and the Democrat Holy of Holies -- the Justice Department. This is the only circumstance in which her selection makes sense.
Clinton as Secretary of State has too many downsides. A confident President wants a strong Secretary of State -- but does Obama want one THIS strong? Mrs. Clinton is already an independent power center in a Democratic Party that Obama is still in the process of taking over. It is difficult enough for the most determined of Presidents to acquire a measure of control over the formulation and administration of foreign policy -- how much more so is it going to be with Mrs. Clinton at Foggy Bottom? Meetings between the President and Secretary Clinton would (more even than is usual) look like mini-summits, and Secretary Clinton would no doubt demand, and get, a whole lot of autonomy. Obama is smart enough to understand this, which tells me that he is either not serious about really making this appointment (perhaps floating the trial balloon just to have it shot down) or not seriously interested in foreign policy.
More importantly, Senator Clinton comes with difficult and loud baggage. Besides Bill Clinton's blinding certainty that his navel is still the center of the universe, his post-Presidential activities, including a foundation with donors he's reluctant to disclose; fees from big investors; absurd fees for speeches (the New York Times noted yesterday, in a story on increased scrutiny being given to Mr. Clinton's dealings, that Mr. Clinton was paid $425,000 for a one hour speech) Mr. Clinton's lucrative and interesting activities will, at the least, have scandal-mongers sniffing around even more than they do already. Even without scandal (and this is Bill Clinton the walking scandal we're talking about) and with the best will in the world, it's hard to imagine that interested players will not try to use former-President Clinton as a good route by which to influence the new administration.
On the subject of Bill Clinton, one wonders if he is really trying to destroy his wife? The Times story reported that Mr. Clinton, in a speech to "an international economic symposium" in Kuwait City" opined that Hillary Clinton would be "great" as a secretary of state" if Obama "decided to ask her and they did it together." (emphasis supplied). Mrs. Clinton has no appointment in hand yet, but Bill assures us she'd be "great" and seems to think she should function as a co-President for foreign policy? President Clinton does want her to be offered the appointment, right?
In general, I think this is a poor appointment, and I bet it doesn't happen. I wonder if there are any alternatives beyond Madeleine Albright?


LFC said...

Alternatives beyond Albright?
Off top of head: Dennis Ross, Richard Holbrooke, Joseph Nye, Jessica Matthews (pres of Carnegie Endowment for Intl Peace), Richard Haass (pres of CFR; except I think he may be a Republican, which might be a bit awkward). I'm not *wild* about any of them, but each is qualified for the job, I would think.
Most refreshing would be the appointment of someone good from the career ranks of the Foreign Service, e.g. Ryan Crocker?? Unlikely to happen, however.

Mr. Vickroy said...

Guess I am a sexist, chauvinist, etc. I think that since our primary foreign policy concern has been the muslim world, perhaps we shouldn't keep appointing women to this post. I know, they SHOULD accept women ...

El Jefe Maximo said...

Yeah, LFC, I thought about it more later, and came up with Ross and Holbrooke. This would not the a post useful for demonstrating bipartisanship either, although DoD might be.

Somebody from the career ranks of foreign service? Possibly, but the SoS generally gets co-opted by the professionals anyway (e.g. Colin Powell). He/she needs to be so to a degree, if they want to be effective, but the President has a view too, and too much control of a policy-making role by the foreign service is apt to lead to organizational chaos, as happened in the early Nixon period when Kissinger short-cutted William Rogers from his NSA perch. You can argue that happened to Colin Powell at the expense of Rumsfeld and C. Rice (but Rice was weak as the National Security Advisor -- she let Rumsfeld run wild, and Powell get shut out. Bush's fault ultimately, but not good).

I hear what you're saying Mr. V. That might actually be thought about, particularly in appointing persons who make that part of the world their especial baliwick...but nobody would ever admit it.

Donald Douglas said...

Great essay. Nicely summarizes the issues from both Obama's and Clinton's perspectives.

I think Hill should stay in the Senate.