Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Madame Secretary?

It’s becoming clear that the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State is a foregone conclusion to be made official early next week. As the vetting/decision-making process drags on, the chorus of cynics grows more and more vocal. Their concerns do not necessarily stem from her lack of qualifications, her temperament or even her ambition, but more from the business dealings of Bill Clinton and his foundation, as well as from the strained personal relationship between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Washington Post:

Word that President-elect Barack Obama is vetting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for secretary of state has set off a furious flurry of chatter. Some laud Mr. Obama for possibly re-creating the team of rivals favored by Abraham Lincoln. Others think it's a mistake bordering on heresy, if you listen to some of Mr. Obama's more ardent supporters, to reward a former rival who brings with her a lot of baggage -- and a globe-trotting husband and former president who's carrying much of it. Ms. Clinton strikes us as well qualified for the job. But that's not quite the end of the question.

…Choosing Ms. Clinton would show that Mr. Obama (and this comes as no surprise) is confident enough to surround himself with smart and capable people. As first lady and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she has learned the potency and perils of hard and soft power alike. Her vigorous campaigning for Mr. Obama this fall suggests an ability to function as part of a team. But if Mr. Obama chooses Ms. Clinton, he'll get Mr. Clinton -- two for the price of one, you might say.

And this is where critics of the Clintons, and even their supporters, have legitimate concerns. Some of these are backward-looking, regarding the hundreds of millions of dollars that Mr. Clinton has raised for his presidential library and foundation, including from foreign governments, foreign individuals and others with an interest in foreign affairs. We have long argued that presidents, sitting or retired, should not be permitted to collect this sort of secret cash for their libraries.

The imperative for disclosure is even greater in the case of the Clintons because of Ms. Clinton's continuing involvement in public life. Among those reported to have given $1 million or more are Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates; the Saudi royal family gave $10 million. If Ms. Clinton is to serve as the nation's chief diplomat, the nation is entitled to know what foreign interests have donated generously to help her husband.

Even more complicated is how the Clintons could pursue their parallel careers if she were to become secretary of state. Mr. Clinton would have to give up his lucrative foreign speechmaking and deal-brokering. And for all the good works of his foundation, which has focused on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, promoting sustainable growth and alleviating global poverty, it is difficult to see how Mr. Clinton's work with a nongovernmental organization could continue alongside Ms. Clinton's work for the U.S. government. When Mr. Clinton exhorted a foreign government to provide funding or cooperation, would he be carrying the implicit support of the U.S. government?

Consider Mr. Clinton's September 2005 trip to Kazakhstan with Canadian mining tycoon Frank Giustra, who has given $130 million to the Clinton foundation. The two men attended a banquet with Kazakh strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev; within a few days, Mr. Giustra had obtained preliminary agreements for his company to buy into uranium projects controlled by the state-owned uranium agency. Neither President Obama nor, if it comes to that, Secretary of State Clinton needs headaches like these.

Tom Friedman expands upon the importance of an honest and open relationship between a President and his Secretary of State.

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 Mrs. Clinton for this job in order to get her off his back or as a prelude to protecting her 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.

…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 mid-conversation.

…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 Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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 Mrs. Clinton that is required for effective diplomacy.

When it comes to appointing a secretary of state, you do not want a team of rivals.
David Broder is a little more blunt in his opposition to Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Making Hillary Rodham Clinton the secretary of state in Barack Obama's administration would be a mistake. I do not doubt that she could do the job -- and do it well… Equally, I admire Obama's readiness to reach out to former rivals and enlist their help in the governing enterprise he is launching. His serious discussions with Clinton, John McCain and Bill Richardson, among others, are testaments to his sincerity in wanting to move beyond the partisanship and personal differences that too often poison the atmosphere in Washington.

What, then, is the problem? Clinton is the wrong person for that job in this administration. It's not the best use of her talents, and it's certainly not the best fit for this new president. What Obama needs in the person running the State Department is a diplomat who will carry out his foreign policy. He does not need someone who will tell him how to approach the world or be his mentor in international relations. One of the principal reasons he was elected was that, relying on his instincts, he came to the correct conclusion that war with Iraq was not in America's interest. He was more right about that than most of us in Washington, including Hillary Clinton.

Of course, he will benefit from the counsel and the contacts that his secretary of state can offer. But remember, he provided another and probably more expert source of that wisdom when he picked Joe Biden, the veteran chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, as his running mate. The last thing Obama needs is a secretary of state carving out an independently based foreign policy. He needs an agent, not an author.

Even if Hillary Clinton were ready to play such a subordinate role, which she might be, in return for a promise that her voice would be heard in the most serious policy debates, the presence of Bill Clinton makes that a doubly difficult assignment. The former president has, through the Clinton Global Initiative and his own extensive foreign travels and worldwide contacts, made himself a force in international affairs. It would be unfair, and unlikely, for him to shut down his own private foreign policy actions because they might conflict with his wife's responsibilities. But foreign leaders would inevitably see Bill Clinton as an alternative route toward influencing American policy. And he would be unlikely to remain silent.

Some commentators have suggested that Hillary Clinton is frustrated by her lack of seniority in the Senate and the fact that she is not yet a chairman of any of the committees handling big policy areas. I find that a curious notion. Her influence, which is vast, does not rest on seniority. It rests on the respect she has won from colleagues in both parties for her hard work, her preparation and her mastery of the substance of policy. Senators want her support for their efforts, and both Republicans and Democrats are eager to join hers, because they know she commands a unique audience both in the Capitol and across the country. That was true in the past, and it is even more true after the impressive campaign she ran for the presidential nomination.

If Clinton can be of service to Obama in Foggy Bottom, she can be of even greater value as an ally on Capitol Hill. I hope that is where she will be when January rolls around.
Maureen Dowd takes a more cynical view (as per usual) of the potential Clinton appointment.

Just as Bill elevated his sprawling, chaotic personality into a management style, so Barry is elevating his spare, calm personality into a management style. But then Obama surprised Bill and Hillary by offering her a chance at the secretary of state job. Maybe because the Clintonian perspective on anyone who opposes them tends to be paranoid, the couple wasn’t expecting such a magnanimous move and they were pleased to be drawn back in from the margins. “This,” said one who knows Bill, “allows him not to be angry.”

At least Bill has the satisfaction of seeing that he has roiled the previously serene and joyous Obamaland. It may be Obama’s very willingness to take the albatross of Bill from around Hillary’s neck and sling it around his own that impresses Bill. Obama is overlooking all his cherished dictums against drama and leaking and his lofty vetting standards to try and create a situation where the country can benefit from the talent of the Clintons while curbing their cheesy excesses, like their endless cash flow from foreigners. And in turn, Bill is doing all he can — he’s disclosing sketchy donors and business interests and figuring out how he could curb his global gallivanting to have fewer conflicts of interest — to help his wife get the job.

It says it all that, at the moment Washington became obsessed with news that Hillary was a contender for State, Bill was getting a half-million for an hour’s worth of chat sponsored by the National Bank of Kuwait, delivered from behind a podium with a camel and Arabic lettering on it. Last year, Bill made $10.1 million in speaking fees. If Hillary gets to be the Mistress of Foggy Bottom, Bill’s guilt over his primary tirades, which hindered her chances of becoming president, would be alleviated.

...One person who famously opposed Hillary’s presidential bid thinks she’d make a great secretary of state. “She’s smart and tough, a lot better than any of the old hacks like Holbrooke, Albright, etc.,” says David Geffen. “Barack Obama is going to run policy, and Hillary will be an effective communicator. It also takes Bill out of the game. It completely turns him into an ally — and probably a help to both of them. I think Obama is very smart to get as many smart people into the room as he can, to bring in Rahm and keep Lieberman and get Hillary into the cabinet. It brings an enormous amount of good will his way, and he’s going to need every ounce of it, given the wars and financial catastrophe America is facing. It’s getting bleaker every day. There are many, many, many more bubbles to burst.”

But why support Hillary for Madam Secretary if you don’t support her for Madam President? “I don’t think they’re the same job at all, do you?” he replied. I told him I agreed. Completely.

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