The President And The Secretary Of State
Unlike many of our readers, it is my view that President Obama has been a nearly flawless foreign policy President. And make no mistake, unlike some Presidents, President Obama appears firmly in control of his Administration's foreign policy. And one of his valuable assets in carrying out his foreign policy is his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Today's New York Times has a long piece on the relationship between the President and the Secretary of State:
Sixteen months after Mr. Obama surprised nearly everyone by picking her as secretary of state, the two have again surprised nearly everyone by forging a credible partnership. Mrs. Clinton has proved to be an eager team player, a tireless defender of the administration, ever deferential to Mr. Obama and careful to ensure that her husband, the former president, does not upstage her boss.
[. . .] Still, there is none of the deep familiarity or the tight bonds — the round-the-clock, back-channel access — of their predecessors, Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, or going further back, James A. Baker and the first President Bush or Henry A. Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon. “Hillary Clinton is the secretary of state,” said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who has written about the shaping of foreign policy. “The question now is whether she becomes a real adviser, and whether he trusts her.”
Rothkopf's comment seems a strange one to me and appears to buy into the idea that the Secretary of State should be the formulator of foreign policy. This accepts the view of Henry Kissinger, who viewed himself as a sort of foreign policy czar:
To make sure Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton talked to each other, White House officials scheduled a standing 45-minute meeting on Thursday afternoons. [. . .] The meetings are sacrosanct for the secretary: after her plane broke down in Saudi Arabia last month, a frantic Mrs. Clinton ditched her traveling press corps to flag down Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command who had been meeting with the Saudi king, for a ride home so that she would not miss her session with the president the next day.
But a weekly one-on-one in the Oval Office is a far cry from the access that some of her predecessors enjoyed. In a joint Newsweek interview with Mrs. Clinton in December, Mr. Kissinger said he made a point of seeing Mr. Nixon every day when they were both in town. “I see the president when I need to see him; I talk to the president when I need to talk to him,” Mrs. Clinton countered in her later interview with The New York Times.
I believe Secretary Clinton has it right. Kissinger, particularly during the Ford Administration (Nixon was not going to be rolled by anyone), was granted a sort of veto power by a weak President. That was bad for the nation. (Bush 41's relationships with Baker and Scowcroft were so close and longstanding that it would be impossible to recreate that type of scenario. Besides which, Bush 41 was very experienced and adept at foreign policy. Jim Baker was clearly carrying out the directives of Bush 41.)
The effectiveness of the Secretary of State might be an issue if there were some doubt that she was not carrying forward the President's directives on foreign policy and if there was some Kissinger-like figure in the NSC. Then the question of marginalization, a la William Rogers in the Nixon Administration and Colin Powell in the Bush 43 Administration, might become an issue. But neither scenario has emerged in the Obama Administration, given the President's tight leash on foreign policy.
There is one conceit in the Times article that always annoys me - the drive for "historic achievement" in foreign policy (which always seems to revolve around the Israel/Palestine situation.) From the article:
Mr. Obama has jealously guarded his prerogatives as the architect of American foreign policy, concentrating decision-making on crucial issues like Iran, Iraq and the Middle East in the White House. And Mrs. Clinton has yet to stake a claim to a core foreign-policy issue, the kind of signature role that would allow her nascent partnership with Mr. Obama to become a truly historic alliance.
Of course, they would have to make history first. So far, the administration’s foreign-policy ambitions have been marked more by frustration than fulfillment, from a stubborn Russia and a defiant China to the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program and a deepening conflict with Israel, where Mrs. Clinton has loudly given voice to the president’s dissatisfaction. Mr. Obama’s dominant foreign policy concern — the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan — is still a work in progress.
Foreign policy is ALWAYS a work in progress. Nothing is ever fully resolved. Indeed, the physicians' oath applies strongly here - first do no harm. Would that the Bush 43 Administration had not aimed for "historic achievements" - the world would be a much better place.
Thus, regarding the issues the Times ticks off - the Middle East (Israel/Palestine), Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia - it is the demand for "historic achievement" that leads to historic blunders. To the Obama administration's credit, they have tabled the "historic achievement" talk (in this sense, shunting the Israel/Palestine issue on to George Mitchell is brilliant, no reason for the President and the Secretary of state getting bogged down in a situation that is largely unmanageable -- Israel and Palestine have to work it out if they can) and have adopted practical, prudent and achievable objectives.
President Obama chose the very capable Secretary Clinton to carry out this new approach and he could not have made a better choice.
Speaking for me only
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