About that Hillary as Secretary of State Thing

Say. Did you notice how successful Colin Powell was at pushing the Bush Administration to adopt his less-horrible foreign policy solutions, like peace in Israel and a government in Iraq that included all factions?

Oh wait. I remember now. In spite of his national stature, in spite of the skills learned in a career of negotiating the bureaucracy and politics of the military, he was profoundly unsuccessful at influencing the direction of policy in the Administration.

There’s something missing from the discussions about whether Obama will indeed name Hillary his Secretary of State: a discussion of how that position has become much weaker in the last half century, as compared to the National Security Advisor or the Defense Secretary. Here’s the closest we get to an acknowledgment of this issue.

Friends said the potential loss of her independence, hard won by her election to the Senate from New York in 2000, caused Clinton to waver last week as she considered Obama’s offer. But advisers said the discussions got back on track after he promised she would have considerable input on staffing decisions and plenty of access to him. 


Indeed, perhaps as a counterweight to the Clinton pick, Obama is likely to name James L. Jones, a widely respected former Marine Corps commandant and NATO commander, to be his national security adviser. Jones would lend a powerful voice on foreign policy matters right in the White House, while Clinton was at the State Department or overseas. 

National Security Advisor

The Secretary of State has lost power for two different reasons. The National Security Advisor has had proximity and–increasingly–operational means. As the person who convenes the National Security Council, the NSA has some ability to guide the agenda. She also would help the President balance the competing views of the other members of the NSC, so would have more sway over final decision-making. And, as the staff of the NSC at the White House grows, the NSA increasingly has the ability to implement presidential foreign policy plans directly, without the cooperation of the State Department (the best example of this was Iran-Contra, in which Ronnie and Poppy implemented entire foreign policy programs through NSC). 

While Condi was a disaster at this role and Hadley only slightly better, that role of internal foreign policy advisor was basically taken over by Cheney in this White House–but there, too, the lesson of an internal force setting policy–including much of the war on terror–remains valid. Colin Powell got effectively shut out of key discussions about torture even though it was a key issue for the international community. And Cheney always was the last one giving Bush advice.

Given the way Clinton’s consideration for State has foreclosed certain other appointments in the national security team, I do wonder the degree to which Jones’ consideration is meant to ensure the decision making remains inside the White House. 

Secretary of Defense

And then there’s the power that the Secretary of Defense has, both because in budgetary terms he has all the toys, and because some of the functions that used to be done at State are now largely being done by Defense. 

One of the reasons why Powell’s attempts to bring sanity to the Iraq reconstruction failed is because every time a representative of State tried to set up meetings between stake-holders in Iraq, Defense would make it tough to find the logistical support for such a meeting, even while ferrying Chalabi and his team into place to pre-empt the meeting (this is also the reason State became so dependet on Blackwater as diplomatic guards, so as to rely less on Defense). Rummy’s control over the means to implement policy on the ground was a powerful tool.

And, even in times of peace (ha!), the regional structure of the military supplants a good deal of the diplomatic infrastructure. Dana Priest’s The Mission showed how the regional commanders conducted a lot of day-to-day diplomacy, not least because they’ve got planes ready to fly to meetings, but also because when the US searches for international solutions–such as disaster aide–frequently the military is the most ready hammer in our tool box to throw at the problem.

It’s worth noting, of course, that Bob Gates–who most observors think will stick around for a while after Obama is sworn in–has been a big proponent of increasing the military’s capacity to provide these nation-building services. And that Anthony Zinni–who stars in Priest’s book as he played diplomat-General from his time as head of CentCom and who was a special envoy to address the Palestinian issue under Bush–is an outside candidate to take over at Defense when Gates is done (he wouldn’t be able to do so until sometime in 2010, though). In other words, by all appearances, Defense will continue to expand its soft power functionality, and it will continue to have the logistical capacity to do things that State cannot now do.

Now, obviously, Hillary is no dummy, and in discussions of their negotiations, it sounds like he has agreed to give her big influence over who gets hired at State and lots of direct access to him. She won’t take this if it appears to consign her to a Powell-like figurehead position. But until the structure of the White House and the structure of the State Department changes, she’ll still be at a structural disadvantage to the NSC and DOD. 

55 replies
  1. plunger says:

    Obama looks considerably less happy about his new job.

    Can you imagine the revelations he’s been welcomed with during the various briefings on the REAL state of the economy, the war, foreign relations, the national debt, the unemployment rate, etc.?

    When thrust into a completely hopeless situation, will he keep his word and always tell us the truth – that we’re completely screwed, the Treasury has been looted, and all we have to look forward to is the Greatest Depression – while the guilty go scott-free?

    Not a chance. He Can’t. He’s soooo not going to enjoy this.

  2. nomolos says:

    I cannot imagine for the life of me why she would want the damn job. Her husband would be nothing but a pain in the ass, she would have less power than a church light bulb, she would have less access to all that DLC money and world leaders would ask her to go home and ask Bill if the agreement she negotiated would be OK. She should stay in NY and represent AIPAC.

    • TobyWollin says:

      I’m with you – I can’t understand why she would do this, unless she feels that she’s not going to get any of ‘the love’ in the senate anyway(being the junior senator and all)and State is better than …whatever. On the other hand, she may feel that it won’t make any difference – how old is she now – 62? If Obama does 4 years, she’ll be 66 – remember the level of criticism she went through on her appearance THIS time around. In four years – we won’t go there. If Obama does 8, then she’ll be 70. I also think that she has some feeling that she wants to step back soon as well, she doesn’t want to wait until she’s so old that she doesn’t have the health to have the energy to do things. I really do think State is her ‘last hurrah”.

      • bobschacht says:

        “. . .unless she feels that she’s not going to get any of ‘the love’ in the senate anyway(being the junior senator and all). . .”

        My guess is that Schumer, with his massive ego, treated her as a loser, and made it clear that HE was top dog in NY, and that she was the JUNIOR senator from New York, and as such, had to beg for scraps. And Schumer was obviously not going away any time soon.

        I had thought Hillary would have more of an independent voice in the Senate, and maybe so. But I hadn’t reckoned with the seniority issue, and how utterly snobbish senators can be about seniority issues (Democrat or Republican.)

        So maybe she’s just tired of seeing Schumer’s face in front of everything she’s trying to do. And I bet that a bunch of the discussions she’s been having with Obama have been about taking back for the State Department many of the jewels that Rummy stole from Colin. In other words, perhaps it is part of Obama’s plan to enhance State and reduce “Defense” a few notches– which would make a great deal of sense, given Bush’s total lack of diplomatic instincts, and his generally John Wayne approach to Foreign Policy (Attack! Attack!).

        This would also make sense in retaining Bob Gates to run a diminished department, assuming that he is willing to run a diminished department.

        Bob in HI

        • bmaz says:

          I think there may be some of that, but even more of Schumer working behind the scenes to get her to State because Hillary in the Senate long term would overshadow him greatly, junior or not.

          • nihil says:

            Note the difference in the way Dick Durbin treated Obama, and Shumer treated Clinton. Durbin wrote me and 10,000 other of his many friends begging money and other support for Obama before BO announced. Obama has charm and gravitas which appeal to older, more established men and women. Many eminent people like Buffett and Volker are eager to help him get ahead, in part, I believe because they fancy that they can coach him, and he will listen. I have gotten the impression or heard it said that one could teach Clinton anything. She impresses me as knowing many things without knowing what she does not know. I have never understood her appeal. I would rather trust a krait in my bosom than to have my success depend pn her good will. Excellent choice for SoS. Watch her very carefully.

        • emptywheel says:


          First of all, it’s not the jewels that Rummy stole from Colin–it’s been going on far longer than that. Which is why it is going to take far more to reverse the trend. There is an entire sector of industry that has an incentive to keep things as they are. Do you really think they’ll just roll over, even if Hillary asks nicely?

          Also, I thought Schumer was always a very big advocate for Hillary. My guess is her post-primary reception had more to do with what Kerry, Kennedy, and probably Jello Jay had to think, not least since Kerry and Jello Jay will both ascend to Chairmanship that she would have liked.

    • bmaz says:

      Glad to see that the haters haven’t lost their edge. You haven’t; still got yer chops.

      Anybody ever consider that Clinton cares about serving and wants to do so in the capacity where she can have the biggest impact and make the biggest difference? Maybe she and Obama together are going to make a run at something grand. Do you see any possible good out of this? Of course not, not if you are too busy wrapped up in stupid petty story lines just like the predatory media.

      Gee, where is all this concern over Eric Holder when he is brought up, eh?

      • TobyWollin says:

        But bmaz – do you think, given how weak the SOS has become over the last 8 years, that she will be able to have a big impact? Yes, I agree – she is someone to whom public service is a very big deal – she has always felt it on a personal level and has certainly ‘paid her dues’ for the last 35 years since Watergate. But I don’t know if being in SOS is going to do for her what she thinks it will, given the loudness of the voice at NSA. On the other hand, being junior in the senate will not allow her to have much scope, even with other senators partnering with her.

      • selise says:

        oh come on – that’s same argument my republican friends and family make when i’ve said anything negative about bush these last 8 years.

        there’s plenty of history on which to judge president clinton’s foreign policy, which senator clinton explicitly endorsed during her presidential campaign.

        president bush had to work hard to kill as many people as president clinton did – and i see nothing wrong with hating that.

        • spacefish says:

          But Bush earned the criticism. Obama has not even taken the oath of office, and you can’t stop criticizing him. I’m not happy with a lot of his choices, either, but I’m willing to give him a chance before I start criticizing his every move.

          As SoS, Hillary Clinton will be charged with carrying out President Obama’s policies, not Bill Clinton’s. I know a lot of people whose plans I would not want to see implemented, but would love to have on my side, carrying out my plans. This is where I really believe Clinton will be.

          • selise says:

            Obama has not even taken the oath of office, and you can’t stop criticizing him

            huh? actually didn’t mention obama. at all.

            what i did say is that there are reasons to be critical of clinton. calling people “haters” is not an argument and after 8 years of it wrt bush, i’m ready to argue about the issues and evidence instead instead of having that undermined with name calling.

      • randiego says:


        In the Senate she’s just a back-bencher, no? Her big love, healthcare is in other Senators hands, no? (kennedy, etc…)

        I think BO will be the type of manager that gives a big-picture vision of what he wants, and then lets his people go do their job, circling back in the end to make sure he got what he wanted. I think Hillary sees this too – an opportunity to effect real change in the world outside our front door.

      • nomolos says:

        Really late getting back as I had family (cat) things to do but I do wonder why you say I am a “hater”. I do think of myself as a realist but if you think a realist is a hater then have another sip and another puff before you mainline.

        • bmaz says:

          It is a generalized term for the irrational Clinton hatred I perceive. I meant nothing personal about it; to the extent it came across as such, that is my fault and I am sorry.

          • nomolos says:

            Thank you. Disliking the Clinton policies and their deep involvement of the DLC is not hatred. Actually both are rather charming, all be it brusque and uninterested if large sums of money are not in the offing, but that is the nature of the political beast I guess.

            I find Bill’s pecadilos as none of my damn business but I do find support of NAFTA, his lust for deregulation and his “welfare reform” bill as totally unacceptable. Hilary’s support of the war and her continued kowtowing to AIPAC and subsidiaries is enough for me to not want her anywhere near State. I absolutely abhor their embracing of dirty political tactics, or maybe ruthlessness, but I am realist enough to accede to the argument that one would have to be wiling to throw shit if you are fighting in the sewer

            • bmaz says:

              Agreed on the last part. I have the same kind of gripes about Obama, on different policies granted, and he hasn’t even taken office. They’re all the same in that regard; they all have baggage and demerits. I like her for this job because I think she is motivated to cement her own record of accomplishment separate from her husband’s, and I think she has the juice we have been discussing here to bring back some meatiness to State Dept. There are always tradeoffs on any of this stuff.

              • nomolos says:

                I agree that is is probably the only person that can bring back some “position” to State, and we do desperately need that.

                As for obama, he is way to far to the right for me! I tend more toward Chavez. By the way please keep up your good writing it is a pleasure to read. I will wait, reluctantly, until Saturday to mention my outstanding Patriots.

  3. foothillsmike says:

    Given the failures of the last eight years and where it came from the State Department really needs to lead the effort to improve our image in the world. I am hopeful that both Obama and Clinton acting in unison can once again return State to the forefront of foreign policy.

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, it’s not just 8 years. And my point is the issue is structural, so it’ll take a lot more than one powerful person (and Hillary is that) to turn it around.

      Imagine how hard it would be to just shift $100 billion from DOD to State, for example. You think the corporatists who love their defense contractor funding aren’t going to turn around and accuse Obama of being a weak hippy who can’t run the war machine? Gates, to be honest, is aware of the problem and would like to fix it, but doesn’t see it changing any time soon.

  4. bmaz says:

    I trust her to make that determination, and to have better facts from which to make it, than we do. She is nothing if not shrewd and calculating. If she thinks that is the bigger and more promising play, and Obama feels comfortable with her being the player, then why not? I agree with people that say the Palestinians will be wary; bu they are going to be wary of anybody that is confirmable for the job. Other than that, I think she has the best chance of middle east action of anybody that is an alternate possibility for the job. And I/P peace is the big kahuna.

    I think Marcy’s points in this post are very well taken, and true. The two questions are can HRC accomplish more in the Senate or at State and is she able to do the job? She has apparently decided that state is the answer to the first, and if she didn’t so think she probably would stay in the Senate; and she carries weight on the world stage, there is no reason to believe she isn’t likely to be as effective, if not more so, than anybody else that is possible.

    Time will tell I suppose.

  5. nadezhda says:

    @emptywheel — I agree with your assessment of the DoD dilemma — not only does it have most of the toys but it’s become the driver of a lot of our bilateral and regional relationships, most often at the expense of State’s traditional roles. But I disagree with your assessment of Gates and Zinni re State since they’ve both been vocal about the need to redress the imbalance.

    Both Gates and Zinni represent the adults who have moved beyond the fighting-the-Cold-War mentality that has dominated so much of the service thinking and acquisition programs. They acknowledge the tension between (1) the need to expand the skill set of the military — with a much greater emphasis on the whole bundle of non-conventional missions (COIN, peacemaking/keeping, stability ops, what used to be called MOOW or missions other than war or in Iraq post-combat operations for which there was no plan) — while (2) how, due to Rummy’s power grabs and the vacuum of resources anywhere else in the USGov, every new urgent task seems to fall on the military because they’re the only ones prepared to take on new jobs. Zinni, in both The Mission and his own memoirs, highlighted that as a core problem — how to transform the capabilities (and mentalities) of the military to meet new challenges while nreducing the over-militarization of our foreign policy. Though he prided himself in the quality of his personal performance as a proconsul, he was decidedly worried about the fact that he felt it necessary to play the role of a proconsul.

    Similarly, Gates has, unusually for a Sec’y Defense, begun to speak regularly on the need to beef up State’s budgets, capacities and roles — what’s become the new mantra in the foreign policy think tank community of the 3Ds, increasing capacity and improving balance between defense, diplomacy and development. Interagency jointness will become increasingly necessary for DoD for both budgetary and effectiveness reasons. But without significant expansion of capacity outside DoD it will remain little more than talk, because DoD can’t do jointness if there’s no capacity in other agencies or departments for DoD to rely on or hand off responsibilities to. And DoD won’t stop taking on tasks that need to be done if nobody else steps up, just because the org chart says it’s somebody else’s job.

    I see a huge opportunity for Hillary, partnering with someone like Gates at DoD, to start to rectify that imbalance and put diplomacy and development back on the map. Gates has already started to make the case publicly. And she’s got the star power and credibility to sell a restructuring and expansion program to the Congressional committees and Congress more generally.

    She’s not reknown for her organizational or management talents — either in theory or practice — and her personal attention is going to be consumed mostly with repositioning the US relationships abroad. So she’d need an extremely good senior person assigned to the Chief Operating Officer (and reform program leader) position. But it’s a big opportunity for Obama to set a new direction for national security that includes more than the traditional defense obsessions, and one of the reasons why I have assumed Obama sees her as a big potential asset at State.

    • bmaz says:

      Greetings nadezhda. Have not seen your name here before, but an extremely insightful and good comment. I think one other point should be made that dovetails in with what you said. It is my understanding that the Pentagon has come to grudgingly very much respect, admire and trust Clinton since she has become a Senator, and that there are some very strong associations there. If so, and I tend to believe that, it could be an important piece of the whole calculus you describe.

      Again, welcome. Please stick around and comment often!

    • emptywheel says:

      Fair enough–with the link to Gates, I was trying to describe his recognition that it needs to happen (which is, IMO, one of the reasons I’m happy with Gates staying). And I also agree a lot would come down to the Deputy SOS position–though I wonder if Hillary picks that person, whether the person would be the kind of heavyweight who needs to carry this out.

      But Hillary’s acceptance AND the demands she is reportedly making (which haven’t, at least publicly, included this massive kind of reorg) suggest she’s thinking more of a statesperson rather than a master bureaucrat.

  6. bmaz says:

    Two things. First – Hard to tell the provenance or veracity of the “all the demands” bit; as that bit seems to come out of the same channels publicizing all the “strife” and “vetting problem” and “”they’re hanging her out to dry as a political ploy” memes emanated from. Quite frankly, for the reasons you state, I hope there have been some demands, but we don’t really know.

    Second – Who would be a good Number Two, and do we have any inkling who is being considered? My only thought, and I am not sure it is a great one at all, is bringing Jamie Rubin back from England.

  7. sdrDusty says:

    If Obama is successful in engaging in diplomatic solutions to the multitude of adversarial situations we’re involved in, then SOS should be structurally more significant.
    But you’re right– the current institutional inertia is with NSC & DOD. Perhaps that’s (part of) why things are so F-’d up.

  8. emptywheel says:

    Of course, Mrs. Greenspan was the one who first “confirmed” that she would take it.

    And if Hillary doesn’t get it, I wonder if it’s too late to give it to Richardson who would be superb in every way.

  9. skdadl says:

    @ 36 and 37:

    Omigosh — is today your Turkey Day? Happy Turkey Day, Merkins. How brave of you to leave it till this close to Christmas.

    I did have the cynical thought that pardoning some of the anonymous in such unaccustomed numbers (for Bush) might be a way of softening people up for the longer lists to come.

    • CTuttle says:

      When I was transplanted from the Northwest Territories to Hawaii as a wee lad, I always wondered why Turkey day was so close to Xmas…! Still can’t fathom it…!

      • emptywheel says:

        Turkey day is THursday.

        You might say they’re so close just because our harvest is a little later than yours (though I suspect MY harvest and southern Ontario’s is pretty much the same).

        Or you might say it’s so we can spend an entire month in a delirium of parties and stress, and then be productive the other 11 months of the year.

  10. kspena says:

    very OT, but I’m wondering if bush doesn’t help states that vote democratic. He didn’t help California in their energy crisis (I remember cheney laughing at CA at the time), he didn’t help Louisiana during Katrina (he tried to blame the dem govenor), and now he doesn’t help Michigan. Is there a pattern there? I’m beginning to think so…

  11. skdadl says:

    Wow, CTuttle — the NWT to Hawaii — you must have thought you’d gone to heaven. Harvest probably never stops there. I am deeply resentful.

    We are definitely post-harvest by now. I don’t have any harvesting to do, but there are some bad weed outgrowths on the walks that need clearing off (so that people can walk), and I kept thinking, och, weel, I can do those any time; we never get ice in November …

    Sorry for the OT. But pity me as I go to harvest weeds tomorrow, pulling them out of teh ice.

    • CTuttle says:

      the NWT to Hawaii — you must have thought you’d gone to heaven.

      Not at the time, my Dad’s demise lead to my Mom’s desire to take a vacation to Hawaii… I didn’t handle it well for a spell…! Now, in retrospect I do enjoy my environs…!

  12. siri says:

    this, from Hitchens, rather says it all for me.
    but whatever stance anyone takes on the Clinton appointment, no one can argue that she’s the most divisive person on the national scene today.
    i think her being SoS is perfect, as Sullivan said re “hil” on Iraq, “She voted for the bloody thing. Let her clean up the mess…” or some such GREAT POINT.
    i just hope the Lake doesn’t deteriorate into poo flinging again because she’s still around; she WON’T GO AWAY.

    • bmaz says:

      Why should she go away? And I will argue any day of the week your contention that “she’s the most divisive person on the national scene today.” Really? More than Dick Cheney? More than George Bush? Crikey, more than Joe Lieberman?

      Again, the irrational hatred rears its head. At this point, the attitude you have propounded here is far more divisive than Clinton herself. Just absurd.

  13. skippy says:

    with any luck at all, jim jones will be national security advisor.

    because then all those obama jokes about “drinking the kool aid” would actually be funny.

  14. JohnLopresti says:

    I share the favorable impression of commenter whose blog moniker is nadezhda, for the Slavically inclined, ‘nadezhda’ parses into English as ‘hope’, albeit with a central Asian Germanic infusion of rootwords meaning to direct the will, and even to apply a planned sort of waiting to desire. The government structure issues discussion is useful, too. I had thought of Hill as considering HHS, yet, Obama would have a ‘moderate’ ally in HRC, if she turns out to be the one for State. There is a lot more at stake than international influence chess matches, with respect to the middle east, and Cheney Bush have stirred the mix clumsily already. One of the interesting exits will be addressing globalization in many spheres. Count me as one who cheered the prior admiistration wayback in its effort to install nafta; perhaps poorly implemented, and definitely Republicanized for the next decade, yet, an approach which holds promise for a wider swath of humanity than capitalists and colonialists. I have been reading a kind of parrochial ivyleague description of the career of AEStevenson online, as a comparison to the morphing of the structures of diplomacy which engaged him.

Comments are closed.