Reality Check

Does It Matter Who the Next Secretary of State Is?

Whether Kerry, Rice, Donilon, or somebody else is named America's top diplomat, there will be one man in charge in Foggy Bottom -- Barack Obama.


There’s nothing quite like being secretary of state.

Where else do you get your own plane, really cool digs on the seventh floor, and access to the eighth floor — with its extraordinary art, furniture, and amazing collection of Americana?

No other job gives you a chance to jet the globe, defending the republic’s interests and radiating a high-minded bipartisanship to boot. What’s more, the gig comes with a shelf life that all but guarantees you media and policy relevance for years to come (just ask every secretary of state since Henry Kissinger).

So you can bet your pinstripe pants or pantsuit that whomever BHO taps to replace Hillary Clinton is going to accept without hesitation, reservation, or even so much as a prenup.

But here’s my question: Does it really matter all that much whom the president chooses? Whether it’s John Kerry, Susan Rice, Tom Donilon, or some mystery candidate who will surprise us all, the next secretary will have to deal with Barack Obama, withholder-in-chief — a guy who dominates and doesn’t delegate big foreign-policy decisions.

Maybe I’m wrong about the U.S. president’s preternatural tendency to control everything. Perhaps in his second term, a more confident Obama will empower a true loyalist — someone he really trusts, like Susan Rice — and allow him or her to run with some truly big issues.

But don’t count on it.

It’s true that all presidents guard their control over foreign policy, but Obama has been more protective than most. Not since Richard Nixon and Watergate shadow president Henry Kissinger ran the show have we seen an administration where all power on the big issues ran in and out of the White House.

Don’t get me wrong. Clinton has been a very fine secretary of state.

She was a veritable star on the international stage and did terrific work in improving America’s image abroad. She fought for her department and pursued an innovative 21st-century agenda — call it planetary humanism: women’s rights, technology, LGBT issues, democracy promotion, and the environment. She did good work on Libya too.

But did she own and dominate — on behalf of the president — a single issue of strategic consequence pertaining to peace or war? There were some issues that the military, CIA and White House appropriately dominated — think Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terrorism. But on others — Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the big think on Iran strategy — the White House exclusively dominated discussions where the State Department could have played a central role.

The president must be the final decision-maker on foreign policy. But the secretary of state should become — or at least in the past became — an architect of his policies. That means crafting strategy, selling it to the president, and working together with a team of envoys and experts to implement it.

Think about what might happen if you actually empowered the secretary of state to be America’s top diplomat. That person might then be able to think through priorities, consider how means and ends align, and develop real options on a tough issue and a strategy for how to coordinate messaging — not as a thought experiment, but with real purpose.

This secretary of state would be empowered to fend off unhelpful bureaucratic meddling. There would be a designated team to support him or her, including the National Security Council and interagency representation. The world would know that it was the secretary of state who spoke for the president — there would be no end runs, no phone calls from leaders seeking to head off initiatives they didn’t like.

Best of all, the secretary could do the spade work and set up situations in which it might be possible to use the president to close a deal. This would husband valuable presidential currency and deploy the president only when it was really necessary.

And with a little luck, you might actually start to develop — dare I use the phrase — a foreign-policy strategy, a term that one White House official dismissed last year as being … so "19th century."

Will the president really use his secretary of state during a second term? He should. With the breadth of his domestic agenda and the screw-ups, carelessness, and even scandals historically associated with second terms, he could use the help.

But old habits die hard, particularly when the guy in charge thinks they work just fine. If Obama changes course, it may well be to appoint some special envoys, particularly on the Middle East peace process — but unlike with George Mitchell, the last such envoy, this time reporting directly to the White House.

From Obama’s point of view, the centralized approach on foreign policy seems to have paid off. He ran a pretty competent foreign policy — no spectacular successes, but no spectacular failures either. Sure, there were some stumbles on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the consulate attack in Benghazi, not to mention a general lack of coherence on what was important and what wasn’t. But hey, the world’s a tough place.

Don’t misunderstand. If the phone rang and it were the president asking me to become secretary of state, I’d take the job. But I’d do so knowing where I stood, and I would harbor no illusions that the nation’s top diplomat is going to have a major role in shaping the nation’s foreign policy over the next four years.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2