With the election of a president who emphasizes the need for tough diplomacy, his choice for secretary of state becomes especially important.
Yet in conversations with current and former diplomats and foreign-policy experts, I’ve found a surprising lack of excitement about the names bandied about as potential choices, including Hillary Rodham Clinton. That also goes for Sens. John Kerry (Democrat), Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel (Republicans); New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; and retired diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (There is one possible wild card, whom I’ll get to below.)
Indeed, the name that arouses the most enthusiasm in foreign-policy circles is a member of the Bush team who isn’t even being considered to head the State Department: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Gates should stay
Why the praise for Gates? Because the defense secretary, who should be asked to stay on by President-elect Barack Obama, has been carrying out a highly unusual crusade for a man charged with overseeing America’s military might.
Gates has been arguing that a larger and stronger diplomatic corps is crucial to U.S. security. “I figured if anything would get the attention of the Congress in terms of a speech on behalf of the State Department,” he said recently, “it would be for that speech to be given by the secretary of defense.”
If you pay attention to Gates’ argument, you will understand what kind of secretary of state America needs.
“What is not well-known,” Gates said, is “the gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist and communicate with other parts of the world — the ‘soft power’ that had been so important throughout the Cold War.” He says a Republican Congress and a Democratic White House were complicit in the 1990s in downsizing the diplomatic corps and abolishing the U.S. Information Agency.
In the 21st century, when we are involved in long, unconventional struggles against nonstate actors, our emissaries need new skills: the ability to deliver economic and development aid to failing states, to counter jihadi Web sites with accurate information, or to negotiate with tribal leaders, etc. These skills will be as important as our military abilities, but — as Gates recognizes — they don’t get the same attention, or anywhere near the funding.
The State Department has lost talented, experienced staff in the Bush years, including many with key language skills. There is a great need for more diplomats with better training and preparation.
So the next secretary of state must do more than travel the globe explaining U.S. positions. He or she must have the managerial skills to rebuild and expand a large, fraying organization, and figure out how to mesh civilian efforts abroad with military operations. He must have the diplomatic skills to persuade Congress to fund a stronger diplomatic corps. And he should have the confidence of, and access to, the president.
Given these requirements, how do the likely candidates score?
Despite the buzz about a Clinton possibility, it’s a bad idea. Domestic policy, not foreign policy, is her strongest suit. Moreover, her selection would create an unnecessary psychodrama, undercutting her performance. What if Bill wanted a piece of the overseas action? State is the wrong fit for Hillary; she should hold out for Supreme Court.
What about Richardson? He’s Hispanic, and Obama owes this important constituency big time. Richardson is smart and has been a good special negotiator on issues like North Korea. But when it comes to foreign policy in general, many see Richardson as a solo operator without the discipline to remake and run a large organization.
As for the others, Kerry has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and might make a good ambassador. But there seems little special to recommend him, save that he gave Obama the floor for his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. That’s not a good reason to be made secretary of state.
Lugar says he doesn’t want the job, and seems to mean it. Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is smart on foreign policy, but it’s unlikely he’d be tapped if GOP appointee Gates is retained. Bipartisanship probably won’t go that far.
Holbrooke? This veteran diplomat is extremely abrasive and makes lots of enemies, but he was exceptionally effective in negotiations over the Balkans. People who have worked with him say he has mellowed, but he doesn’t have strong chemistry with Obama.
A military option
Which brings me to the wild card: Gen. James Jones.
Jones is a four-star who headed the Marine Corps and was NATO military commander. He led a congressional task force that examined Iraqi security forces, and he serves as a Mideast special envoy for the White House. He briefed Obama on Afghanistan after heading a study for the Atlantic Council, a nongovernmental organization he now chairs.
Highly regarded, with a powerful intellect, Jones knows how to run a large organization. When I asked diplomats how they’d feel about a former military man at their helm, most praised the jobs done at State by retired Gens. Colin Powell and George Marshall. Jones would be well-placed to mesh the soft power work of our diplomats and aid officials with our military forces.
The 6-foot-plus Jones is a basketball player who would look impressive on a court with Obama. But seriously, this wild-card pick might be the best choice to rebuild the soft power capacity our nation needs.