What to watch for in Secretary Clinton

Good choices for the foreign policy and Defense appointees, but a lot depends on how Hillary staffs her new job and how the new national security adviser conceives of that post.
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Good choices for the foreign policy and Defense appointees, but a lot depends on how Hillary staffs her new job and how the new national security adviser conceives of that post.

According to various news reports, President-elect Barack Obama is poised to formally announce Monday morning his core foreign policy/national security appointees: Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, current Defense Secretary Bob Gates continuing at Defense, and former Marine Corps commandant James Jones as national security adviser. Obama could announce key intelligence appointments as well.

Obama's fate as president could be determined by the advice and operating performance of these three,. That's also true for the financial/economic policy appointees announced last week, and in whom I have unqualified confidence. Others on the new governing team will have less importance.

First, the best news: Gates brought realism and professionalism to the Defense Department when he replaced fired Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Morale of civilian and military personnel has been lifted. Since he was not part of the team that pushed President Bush toward an Iraq intervention, he has had no personal stake in it. If, as expected, his appointment is announced Monday, he will provide invaluable policy continuity within the department and, not least, help deflect Republican congressional criticism of Obama's eventual Iraq withdrawal strategy. (It is difficult, for instance, to imagine Sen. John McCain taking on a Gates-led Defense Department in congressional hearings). The Gates appointment will continue a long tradition whereby new presidents appoint at least one member of the opposition party among the State/Defense/Treasury troika.

The appointment of Gen. Jones also should be a plus — if, as must be the case, Obama has had long personal discussions with him already and feels comfortable with him. According to those who know and have worked with him, Jones, who also served as NATO commander, is not a national security theorist or strategist. He is a bread-and-butter administrator and coordinator who will run the NSC job as it originally was envisaged — that is, not as a power base for himself. (Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski are examples of power-basers, people who overpowered Secretaries of State and Defense from within the White House to push their favored policy options on the presidents they served.)

I have expressed before my concerns about Clinton. I have far greater respect for her now than I did before she began her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her tenacity, determination, and intelligence shone through in that campaign. Yet there is no escaping the fact that she has less actual foreign-policy experience than several of her present Senate colleagues and barely more than Obama, whose instincts are good but whose own experience in the field is limited.

I have concerns as well about the persons who will serve at the White House with Jones and State Department with Clinton. The NSC staffers covering various geographic and policy areas (Europe, Asia, terrorism, etc.), as well as the assistant secretaries and counselors at State, have enormous influence over day-to-day policymaking. They set the terms of reference and frame the issues for the cabinet secretaries and, ultimately, the president. They contribute to the options papers which are considered when key decisions are to be made. (I cannot believe, for example, that such papers were properly prepared for the present President Bush before he made the final decision to intervene in Iraq). The knowledgeability and judgment of these key people is a sine qua non for wise policymaking.

Reports indicate Clinton has demanded and been granted the right to name her own team at State. That concerns me. Clinton herself is tough-minded and intelligent, but she has until now surrounded herself with operatives more notable for political loyalty and correctitude than for their wisdom about complex international issues. I wonder if Obama considered this when discussing the job with Clinton; it will soon become apparent if he did. I am waiting to see, in particular, those she will bring with her to State. If they are independent and serious people, Obama will be well served. But if they consist mainly of her longstanding core group, he will not.

It will be important, too, that Jones recruit an NSC team able to bring independent judgment and experience to their jobs. The NSC is the place where bad recommendations from State or Defense are supposed to be stopped — or at least reexamined.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.