The Cable

Obama 2.0: Who will fill the top jobs in foreign policy?

The Obama administration’s foreign policy team can claim a few signature accomplishments in its first two years in office:  progress on resetting relations with Russia, aiding Iraq’s transition to self-rule, strengthening sanctions on Iran, and increasing attention on Southeast Asia. Progress on Middle East peace, the war in Afghanistan, and dealing with North Korea and ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s foreign policy team can claim a few signature accomplishments in its first two years in office:  progress on resetting relations with Russia, aiding Iraq’s transition to self-rule, strengthening sanctions on Iran, and increasing attention on Southeast Asia. Progress on Middle East peace, the war in Afghanistan, and dealing with North Korea and China haven’t gone as smoothly. Now, faced with a divided Congress and looking ahead to another presidential campaign only months away, the Obama administration is looking to make changes in several of its top national security and foreign policy posts.

Within the last six months, Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew moved over from State to OMB, National Security Advisor Jim Jones resigned in the wake of the latest book by Bob Woodward, and Dennis Blair stepped down from his post as Director of National Intelligence. Over the next six months, another set of officials will move to new jobs or leave the administration altogether. The resulting vacancies will have repercussions throughout the bureaucracy, as other officials jockey for positioning in the hopes of moving up or out of their current roles.

Here is a list of some, but not all, of the top administration policy jobs that could up for grabs in 2011… and who leads the race to fill them


1.       Secretary of DefenseRobert Gates, who is the first defense secretary to work for consecutive presidents from opposing parties and has served in the position for four years, has said publicly that he will step down in 2011. Exactly when Gates will leave is unknown, but he is expected to stay at least until the administration has a chance to unveil its fiscal 2012 budget request in mid-February and then brief Congress on it during the early spring.

The candidate who fills Gates’ shoes will require the international prestige to meet with foreign leaders on equal terms, the military bona fides to manage the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political savvy to guide the Pentagon though what will surely by its most complex interactions with Capitol Hill in many years. The top candidates discussed around town are John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Michele Flournoy, Gates’ undersecretary for policy (who would be the first female defense secretary), and CIA chief Leon Panetta. The dark horse is former Obama campaign advisor Richard Danzig, who is also chairman of the Center for a New American Security. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s name has been tossed around but is seen as a less likely choice.


2.       Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, who is intimately involved in scores of issues as the top deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has been rumored to be leaving for months. We’re told that he originally set a two-year deadline for his time at the State Department, but has not yet found a job that would entice him enough to leave — such as the presidency of a major university.

Names that have been tossed around as Steinberg’s replacement include former State Department counselor Wendy Sherman, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Bill Burns. Burns, as a career foreign service officer, would be an unusual choice because the job usually goes to a political appointee — but he’s on the list nevertheless. But as happened with the appointment of Thomas Nides to replace Lew, Clinton could select someone outside the circle of usual suspects in Washington.


3.       Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan – The unexpected death last month of Richard Holbrooke has left a void in the administration’s Af-Pak leadership team. Acting SRAP Frank Ruggiero has been filling in ably and even scored a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week in Kabul. But State Department officials say the search for a permanent replacement for Holbrooke is ongoing.

We’ve heard the names of Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state and current president of the Brookings Institution, as well as former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering mentioned as possible replacements. Ruggiero is not expected to be named as the permanent SRAP. But if the search drags on, Ruggiero’s status could be made permanent as he gets more comfortable in the role. This one is Clinton’s choice, we’re told.


4.       State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne Marie Slaughter, having completed her stewardship of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), returns to Princeton University later this month. She will teach a course on — you guessed it — the QDDR!

Slaughter’s deputy, Derek Chollet, was reportedly offered her job but elected to move over to the National Security Staff as the senior director for strategic planning. The leading contender for Slaughter’s job therefore seems to be Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s longtime aide and currently her deputy chief of staff. Sullivan could also be up for Chollet’s old job if Clinton decides to go the other way and bring in another senior academic in the mold of Slaughter.


5.       U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan – Current ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who has fallen out of favor with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and whose criticisms of the Obama administration’s war strategy were leaked to the press in January 2010, has been rumored to be on the outs for a long time. The conventional wisdom is that Eikenberry’s departure was postponed when Gen. Stanley McChrystal was sacked last June and that his ouster was again delayed due to the untimely death of Holbrooke.

But the U.S. embassy in Kabul can go without a functioning relationship with the Afghan government for only so long. We’re told that, sooner rather than later, Eikenberry will be recalled to Washington. Clinton has been tight-lipped about possible replacements, but the short list could include David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who served as the top military commander in Afghanistan and now works as a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ruggiero is another possibility, if his Karzai meeting went well.


6.       Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC)Michael Vickers, who was immortalized as the boy genius in Charlie Wilson’s War, will be leaving this post after being nominated as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, replacing James Clapper, who is now the director of national intelligence. While most posts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense that are up for changes will stay unfilled until there is more clarity concerning Gates’ departure, this vacancy probably can’t wait until then. The crucial nature of the SOLIC office, which oversees many of the secret operations that have become so central to the effort in Afghanistan mandates it been backfilled with urgency.

There have been several reports that Michael Sheehan, a former top counterterrorism official at the State Department during Bill Clinton’s administration, has been offered the job. John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security, had been rumored for the post, but now seems to be in line for the job of principal deputy to Sheehan, if Sheehan takes the gig.


7.       Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation  (ISN) – This posting, which has been vacant for two years, is set to be filled in the coming weeks. Acting Assistant Secretary Vann Van Diepen has been managing the ISN bureau, but is not considered a contender for the permanent job due to lingering GOP complaints regarding his role in crafting a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Cable reported earlier this month that Tom Countryman, currently a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs has been selected for the job, but is currently awaiting final approval from the White House.


8.       National Security Council staff – The new leadership of the NSC is now in place, with Tom Donilon as national security advisor, Denis McDonough as his deputy, and Brooke Anderson as chief of staff. Below them, however, a game of musical chairs is underway.

Other top NSC officials who are rumored or reported to be cycling out in the coming months include Asia senior director Jeffrey Bader, who could be replaced by Daniel Russel, the NSC director for Japan and Korea, and Africa senior director Michelle Gavin, who reportedly is being replaced by Mary Yates, the outgoing NSC director for strategic planning. Chollet will take over Yates’ job.

We’re also hearing that Liz Sherwood-Randall, the NSC’s senior director for Europe, could be moving on soon, as well as senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Doug Lute.  Lute is one of the few holdovers from the George W. Bush administration. The fact that he’s been in his post for so long is one reason for the speculation that a search for his replacement could be underway. We’re told that very preliminary feelers have been sent out to people such as Barno, but there has been no official confirmation that a replacement is being sought for Lute.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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