So President-elect Barack Obama is considering Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. How should we feel about that?
Clinton is a serious person. She is smart, tough, cunning, hard-working and knows the world – all key qualities for a secretary of state. She would also bring a certain star quality to the top of the State Department that can be useful. I don't know if she is the best person in America for that job right now, or if she'll get it, but if one is just looking at qualifications, Clinton certainly passes the bar.
What worries me, though, is that much of the media attention today is focused on the wrong relationship question. Everyone is asking how she would manage the relationship with former President Bill Clinton and his own global speaking, fundraising and philanthropic agendas. My guess is that they'll figure that out. Bill Clinton would stop making paid speeches to foreigners.
The important question, the answer of which is not at all clear to me, is about the only relationship that matters for a secretary of state – the kind of relationship he or she would have with the new president. My question: Is Obama considering Clinton for this job in order to get her off his back or as a prelude to protecting her back?
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Boss has to have your back
I covered a secretary of state, one of the best, James A. Baker III, for four years, and one of the things I learned during those years was that what made Baker an effective diplomat was not only his own skills as a negotiator – a prerequisite for the job – but the fact that his boss, President George H.W. Bush, always had Baker's back. When foreign leaders spoke with Baker, they knew that they were speaking to President Bush, and they knew that President Bush would defend Baker from domestic rivals and the machinations of foreign governments.
That backing is the most important requirement for a secretary of state to be effective. Frankly, Obama could appoint his dear mother-in-law as secretary of state, and if he let the world know she was his envoy, she would be more effective than any ex-ambassador who had no relationship with the president.
Our current president never cared about this, so neither of his secretaries of state was particularly effective. Rather than having Colin Powell's back, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delighted in stabbing Powell in the back, particularly when he was on the road. But being close to the president is not enough. Condoleezza Rice had a close relationship with Bush, but Bush had no coherent worldview to animate her diplomacy, so all her travels added up to less than the sum of their miles. The two most impactful secretaries of state in the last 50 years were Baker and Henry Kissinger. Both were empowered by their presidents, and both could candidly talk back to their presidents.
It's obvious if it's there
Foreign leaders can spot daylight between a president and a secretary of state from 1,000 miles away. They know when they're talking to the secretary of state alone and when they are talking through the secretary of state to the president. And when they think they are talking to the president, they sit up straight; and when they think they are talking only to the secretary of state, they slouch in their chairs. When they think they are talking to the president's “special envoy,” they doze off in midconversation.
“It takes America's friends and adversaries about five minutes to figure out who really speaks for the White House and who doesn't,” wrote Aaron D. Miller, a former State Department Middle East adviser. “If a secretary of state falls into the latter category, he or she will have little chance of doing effective diplomacy on a big issue. More likely, they'll be played like a finely tuned violin or simply taken for granted.”
When the U.S. secretary of state walks into the room, Miller added in a recent essay in The Los Angeles Times, “his or her interlocutors need to be on the edge of their seats, not comfortably situated in their chairs wondering how best to manipulate the secretary. If anything, they should be worried about being manipulated themselves.”
Politics would be prevalent
My question is whether a President Obama and a Secretary of State Clinton, given all that has gone down between them and their staffs, can have that kind of relationship, particularly with Clinton always thinking four to eight years ahead, and the possibility that she may run again for the presidency. I just don't know.
Every word that is said between them in public, and every leak, will be scrutinized for what it means politically and whether there is daylight. That is not a reason not to appoint Clinton. But it is a reason for everyone around the president-elect to take a deep breath and ask whether they are prepared to have the kind of air-tight relationship with Clinton that is required for effective diplomacy.
When it comes to appointing a secretary of state, you do not want a team of rivals.