Reality Check

The Enemy in Foggy Bottom?

Fine, Secretary Romney is a bad idea. But there are plenty of good reasons that presidents should cross the aisle when picking a secretary of state.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

"Secretary of state is not something you throw at the other party to show how bipartisan you are. The job is way more important than that. This is your representative to the world." –Senator Arnold Vinick to President-elect Matt Santos, The West Wing, Season 7

A couple of weeks ago, I proposed a howler of an idea in this space: If Barack Obama is lucky enough to be reelected, he should choose his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as his secretary of state.

The idea wasn’t serious; the point behind it was. For the first time in a quarter-century, the United States has a bipartisan — even nonpartisan — consensus on many of the core issues relating to the country’s foreign policy. Briefly put, if you can get past the campaign rhetoric, there’s not much difference between the candidates on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, fighting terrorists, avoiding costly wars, the Arab Spring, and even, in the real world of imperfect options, how to deal with recalcitrant Russians and Chinese.

That consensus may prove to be pretty durable. But to give it real meaning, whoever is elected president ought to choose a secretary of state clearly and unmistakably identified with the opposing party.

The key variable for selection — of course — must be the right qualifications to do the job. But if there’s a candidate from the other party who passes the experience and résumé test, President Obama or President Romney shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. It will be good for the country. Here’s why.

The Bipartisan Illusion: Make It Real

It’s curious, particularly given that America prides itself on a foreign policy driven by bipartisan — even nonpartisan — logic, that it has never had a president in the modern period who appointed a secretary of state from the opposing party. Back in the day, you might have argued that since the secretary of state was third in line to succeed the president (it’s now fourth), you wouldn’t want someone from the opposing party that close to the White House. Indeed, it rarely happened. In a bipartisan gesture, President Grover Cleveland  nominated Walter Quinten Gresham as secretary of state in 1893. Gresham, who ran for president in the Republican primaries in 1884 and 1888 served until his death in May 1895.

It leads you to the somewhat inescapable conclusion that there’s clearly a good deal more myth than reality to the old saw about politics stopping at the water’s edge. The Founding Fathers fought bitter battles over relations with Britain and France. Americans have been arguing about war and peace ever since, even while they have signed up to various contradictory principles about their special role in the world and their frequent desire to avoid getting involved in it ("monsters to destroy" and all that).

Let’s not forget Republican attacks on Bill Clinton’s foreign policies — "rudderless and illusory," as Bob Dole charged on almost every key issue from North Korea to Somalia — nor the polarized climate in which George W. Bush pursued his. Before we get carried away on a wave of bipartisan togetherness, let’s consider the fact that the United States has had just six secretaries of state successfully seek the presidency — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan — and a number of others who tried unsuccessfully. (I suspect the country may have a seventh before the decade is over.)

Yet, the position of America’s top diplomat is curiously perceived to be bipartisan. Indeed, the public attaches great prestige to the office and image of the secretary of state and sees the job somehow as above the political fray. Both Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton were and are immensely popular, often more so than their respective bosses, partly because of this image. And the half-life of former secretaries of state — as opposed to other cabinet officials, who fade very quickly — is a prolonged one. The country’s top diplomats tend to do very well after their time at Foggy Bottom, emerging as highly visible public figures who author bestselling books, write op-eds, urge bipartisanship, cooperation, and comity, and generally offer wise counsel in the conduct of the country’s affairs.

Still, the selection process has remained hostage to party politics. This is self-defeating because it denies the president access to a greater talent pool and misses an opportunity to show greater resolve and unity to friends and enemies abroad. The time has come to make the image of a bipartisan foreign policy accord with the reality. Americans have been breaking plenty of tough taboos lately and crossing important lines in their politics relating to gender and race; why should the partisanship barrier not be broken too? There are plenty of precedents at the cabinet level for presidents reaching across the aisle: John F. Kennedy made Douglas Dillon his treasury secretary; Richard Nixon made John Connally his in 1971. Bill Clinton appointed William Cohen as his defense secretary, and Obama looked to Robert Gates to continue on as his.

Expand the Pool

Going across the aisle to find the country’s top diplomat shouldn’t be driven by the Mount Everest principle — climb it because it’s there. There are practical reasons for breaking the partisan ceiling.

This is one tough job. It requires judgment, political skill, leadership, managerial talent, negotiating chops, and a close relationship with the president. The latter shouldn’t exclude potentially well-qualified candidates who are not necessarily of the same party. Presidents have entrusted the country’s economy and defense to members of the opposing party. Why not foreign policy? If Obama put his erstwhile presidential rival in the job after a tough campaign, another president could certainly place a former senator, an experienced public servant, or a qualified public intellectual in the job just as easily. The United States hasn’t had that many great secretaries of state; we can use all the help we can get in expanding the pool of possible candidates. It’s just logical: Looking at a longer list of options gives you a better chance of picking the best one.

More Unum and Less Pluribus

One of the saddest, most destructive trends in America today is the loss of faith in government institutions and the increasing relish with which politicians and the 24/7, in-your-face media accentuate what divides rather than what unites Americans. The polls now have Congress’s approval rating in the single digits. And the public’s faith in the ability of government to do the right thing has also plummeted in general: Fifty-seven percent of Americans now have little or no confidence in the federal government’s ability to solve domestic problems.

Autumn Brewington, the Washington Post‘s op-ed editor, even wondered last week in a column whether a queen might help: "Someone who, like a living Statue of Liberty, symbolizes the nation and represents not one ideology but the American people." (I actually thought that was supposed to be the president; how silly of me.)

Ironically, this downward trend, particularly the credibility gap and mistrust of government, began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the conduct of foreign policy toward Southeast Asia by both Democratic and Republican administrations and the deception, lies, and coverups that accompanied it. And while these days the popular perception of government has more to do with incompetence than conspiracy, the country could use a restoration of trust and some unity all the same. Why not bring the process full circle by using foreign policy to restore rather than undermine confidence in government?

The fact is, Americans are deeply divided on some critically important domestic issues — debt, deficit, the role of government. Those divisions aren’t going away anytime soon. At the same time, there’s an emerging consensus in U.S. foreign policy that’s smart, functional, and welcome. We should build on it.

I don’t want to idealize bipartisanship. Both its frequency and utility have long been overestimated in America’s history and politics. But the country really could use a shot of togetherness these days, and not just in the wake of some horrible national trauma and tragedy. Identifying a political rival from the opposing party to lead the country abroad is something the president actually has the capacity to do without passing a law or breaking some venerable tradition. Indeed, with foreign policy figuring less centrally in the election campaign, it ought to be easier to go bipartisan.

By tradition, the secretary of state is regarded as the cabinet’s highest-ranking officer, the third highest-ranking official behind the president and vice president in the executive branch, and by law fourth in the line of presidential succession after the vice president, speaker of the House, and president pro tempore of the Senate if the president dies or is incapacitated. There would be no better symbol of a functioning, unified bipartisan approach and spirit if the next president reached across the aisle to choose the next secretary of state. It would send a powerful signal to America’s friends and enemies abroad — and to Americans at home — that U.S. politics and policies actually have some coherence and unity and are more than just a partisan free-for-all.

Sadly, I suspect even this idea is too much for America’s politics and system. Some will argue that it won’t make a damn bit of difference; others that a president needs people he can truly trust and positions to reward allies and loyalists. Some might even argue that the tension between parties on foreign policy is healthy. None of this convinces me. We have a major problem in the United States: too much pluribus and not enough unum in our politics. And somehow, we need to address it. A bipartisan choice in Foggy Bottom would be as good a place as any to start.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola