Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Does It Matter Who the Next Secretary of State Is?

Whether Kerry, Rice, Donilon, or somebody else is named America's top diplomat, there will be one man in charge in Foggy Bottom -- Barack Obama.


There's nothing quite like being secretary of state.
Where else do you get your own plane, really cool digs on the seventh floor, and access to the eighth floor -- with its extraordinary art, furniture, and amazing collection of Americana?
No other job gives you a chance to jet the globe, defending the republic's interests and radiating a high-minded bipartisanship to boot. What's more, the gig comes with a shelf life that all but guarantees you media and policy relevance for years to come (just ask every secretary of state since Henry Kissinger).

So you can bet your pinstripe pants or pantsuit that whomever BHO taps to replace Hillary Clinton is going to accept without hesitation, reservation, or even so much as a prenup.
But here's my question: Does it really matter all that much whom the president chooses? Whether it's John Kerry, Susan Rice, Tom Donilon, or some mystery candidate who will surprise us all, the next secretary will have to deal with Barack Obama, withholder-in-chief -- a guy who dominates and doesn't delegate big foreign-policy decisions.
Maybe I'm wrong about the U.S. president's preternatural tendency to control everything. Perhaps in his second term, a more confident Obama will empower a true loyalist -- someone he really trusts, like Susan Rice -- and allow him or her to run with some truly big issues.
But don't count on it.
It's true that all presidents guard their control over foreign policy, but Obama has been more protective than most. Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate shadow president Henry Kissinger ran the show have we seen an administration where all power on the big issues ran in and out of the White House.
Don't get me wrong. Clinton has been a very fine secretary of state.
She was a veritable star on the international stage and did terrific work in improving America's image abroad. She fought for her department and pursued an innovative 21st-century agenda -- call it planetary humanism: women's rights, technology, LGBT issues, democracy promotion, and the environment. She did good work on Libya too.
But did she own and dominate -- on behalf of the president -- a single issue of strategic consequence pertaining to peace or war? There were some issues that the military, CIA and White House appropriately dominated -- think Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terrorism. But on others -- Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the big think on Iran strategy -- the White House exclusively dominated discussions where the State Department could have played a central role.
The president must be the final decision-maker on foreign policy. But the secretary of state should become -- or at least in the past became -- an architect of his policies. That means crafting strategy, selling it to the president, and working together with a team of envoys and experts to implement it.

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