On Clinton as SecState

Assuming for the sake of argument that Obama and Clinton are not as far apart on substantive policy issues, such as Iraq and Iran, as both candidates suggested during the primary campaign, I still believe Hillary’s appointment will prove a serious strategic error on Obama’s part, particularly if, as reported, she is given the authority to pick top officials at State, presumably from deputy secretary all the way down to deputy assistant secretary level.

If the appointment does indeed take place, it’s hard to imagine a situation where Obama could fire her without incurring an extremely heavy political cost, including the possibility that she could challenge him in 2012. That state of affairs gives her an extraordinary amount of power and independence. And if she or her subordinates at State — think Richard Holbrooke as deputy secretary, for example — assert that independence by failing to coordinate adequately with the White House, foreign interlocutors could become very confused and feel required to develop all kinds of “back channels” to the various players.

Such a situation would be rendered even more likely if the National Security Council staff — presumably overseen by Gen. Jones as national security adviser — consists primarily of Obama loyalists, while State is dominated by officials who supported Clinton during the campaign. Normal bureaucratic rivalries that afflict the foreign-policy apparatus of virtually every administration (George H.W. Bush’s excepted) would, under those circumstances, likely be compounded by the feelings of political — and even personal — betrayal left over from the primary battles, regardless of the wishes and mutual goodwill of the two principals. And even if there is an attempt integrate the two camps by putting Clinton partisans in the White House and Obama people at senior posts at State, there is no certainty that pre-existing cliques of loyalists on both sides will not try to marginalize the outsiders in the policy-making process despite the exhortations of their masters.

(Take, for example, the case of Susan Rice, a protegee of Madeleine Albright, who was an early Obama supporters and one of his key foreign-policy aides. Since news that Clinton may serve as secretary of state first surfaced, the possibility that Rice would serve in a senior State Department position, possibly deputy secretary of state, seems to have vanished, and now the question is whether she will get an NSC post or be nominated as U.S. ambassador to the UN, a post that normally reports to the secretary of state but has also been made a cabinet position. Which model would Obama choose if he nominates Rice to the post? And how strongly would Clinton insist that Rice report to her?)

Now, it may be that Obama, through Gen. Jones, can impose discipline on the players and the process, and I found it interesting that the Washington Post reported several days ago that “Obama is considering expanding the scope of the (national security adviser) job to give the adviser the kind of authority once wielded by powerful figures such as Henry A. Kissinger.” If true, which I tend to doubt, it raises serious questions about why Clinton would seriously consider the job, unless she believes that, once confirmed in the post, she would indeed enjoy substantial independence whether the White House liked it or not. Jones, on the other hand, would probably have very little patience for the State Department going its own way. So the potential for tension and conflict between the two bureaucracies seems very high to me. (And, incidentally, what will be the role of Joe Biden, whose recognized foreign-policy expertise was purportedly one of the major reasons he was asked to join the ticket, in all of this?)

As noted above, this assumes there are no basic policy differences between Clinton and Obama, and, indeed, the differences that emerged during the campaign were more of degree than of kind when went beyond the sound-bites. That said, I believe that the two still hold very different worldviews. On an ideological spectrum, I see Clinton as more of a liberal interventionist who tends to see the world in (sometimes highly) moralistic terms — and the U.S. as a morally “exceptional” nation — that demands a very activist approach. Obama, on the other hand, appears to me to be more “realist” in orientation, instinctively more critical of the U.S. and its history and more skeptical and cautious about its ability to “transform” other nations and cultures. While boh Clinton and Obama are pragmatic politicians, I am quite confident that these differences — while not nearly as dramatic as those between the hawks and the realists in the Bush administration — will inevitably emerge in internal debates over specific policies.

All that said, however, readers should look at Steve Clemons’ blog, www.thewashingtonnote, for his recent musings about how the various combinations and permutations in the national-security leadership may play out, particularly now that it appears that Gates, a realist, will be asked to stay on. His notion that the entire team may be united on the question of what policies to pursue in the Greater Middle East, including giving priority to the Israel-Arab conflict, is very encouraging, if, perhaps, a bit on the optimistic side.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. It appears that President-Elect Obama is unwittingly and his closest advisors are wittingly or unwittingly unnecessarily setting up potential conflicts in worldviews between him and Senator Mrs. Hillary Clinton. Why has Hillary Clinton calculated that becoming U.S. Secretary of State is preferable to staying a U.S. Senator from New York? Her public utterances on the Middle East have been synonymous with the current occupant of the White House, therefore the prospects for change appear ominous. Why is the mainstream press and television often so devoid of critical thinking? Also it makes the “work” of the foreign policy establishment more like propaganda than real work-which is solving honestly our problems-foreign and domestic. Where are the solutions after decades and hundreds of billions of dollars spent? Are these problems really intractable and unsolvable? In our political system failure is often rewarded with renewed and continued service in government sponsored by our very mediocre political parties.

    The best and the brightest may be just professional party lobbyists with agendas that are not always in the best interest of the country by discarding the wise counsel of President George Washington in his Farewell Speech and President Eisenhower’s warning about the Military-Industrial-Complex has also gone unheeded.

  2. Sir,
    Very interesting article. I am not, however, much into the micro-analysis that is going on throughout the media and political circles. I think that Macro-geopolitical situations will quickly end any needed analysis. The new administration faces so many, many problems. However, a few are sub-critical. First, solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and only a fool believes that the Palestinians are the problem. So, Israel will have to be rebuffed. Next, dealing with a runaway military-industrial complex, (probably best handled by other “complexes”, the parmacitical, the energy, etc., competing for a drastically shrinking money pile).. Thirdly, dealing with the global overage of labor and the necessity of providing jobs. Fourth, recognizing that “Capitalism” is as dead as “Communism”. Only Socialism enabled the system to survive on life support, for a little while. Pray that this support doesn’t turn into global and rampant Nationalistic Fascism, which is very, very likely. So, I welcome Senator Clinton, though I deplore her slavish attitude toward Israel, as I welcome many of President-elect Obama’s appointment. The Republic truly needs its best and brightest at this critical time. Indeed, even that may not be enough and it may be that many of these great problems will prove intractable, but we need, with this brilliant young President, to give it our best shot.
    Keep up the good work. Americans are waking up. But to what?


  3. SoS would give Hillary the foreign policy experience, what Palin lacked [among other things], to become president in 2012.

    I also feel Obama will be a one term president.

  4. Hillary Clinton is a terrible choice for Secretary of State.
    She’s under the thumb of the Israel Lobby, so whatever the boys in Tel Aviv want, they get. She’s a pushy interventionist.

    Obama is sending a message to the world that American foreign policy is–well, the same old shit.

  5. President-to-be Obama is cunning like a fox. After failing to choose her for veep, I suspect he wants Hillary Clinton safely locked away at State so that she is less likely to challenge him again four years from now for the nomination.

    Having witnessed Obama’s cynical performance to date and his shameless reneging on promises, I expect he will be just a one-term president.

Comments are closed.