It’s His Prerogative

Let Obama pick his secretary of state. Even if it's Susan Rice. 

Susan Rice should be America’s next secretary of state. At least, she should be if the president wants her to be. But just who takes over in Foggy Bottom is far from the most important decision President Barack Obama faces when it comes to his national security team.

Let’s get the Rice question out of the way first. It was heartening to see that over the past few days, Republican opposition to her appointment seems to have softened. The attacks over her Benghazi statements were among the most egregious examples of attempting to shoot the messenger in recent U.S. political history. Benghazi was a tragedy, and it deserves a thorough investigation. Mistakes were made.

But they were not Susan Rice’s mistakes, and there is no evidence that she did anything other than present the administration’s talking points as asked. If there is fault — and there surely is regarding security for U.S. officials in Libya, and there may be in the administration’s seemingly politically motivated decision to put off acknowledging the obvious terrorist roots of the attack — it lies elsewhere. That said, the biggest reason to shift the focus away from Benghazi is that it is a double distraction, both from the important business of putting in place a high-quality national security team and from the extraordinarily complex challenges posed by the spreading, interconnected crises currently bedeviling the Middle East.

The situation in the Middle East is more dangerous than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and it is only one of an array of profoundly complex challenges the president’s national security team will face in the next four years. Virtually all — from the rise of new powers to America’s challenges at home, from the impact of new technologies to the need for new alliances and institutions — will demand a kind of new thinking not seen in U.S. foreign policy in decades. It is the “what” and the “how” of this foreign policy that are at the moment more important than the “who.”

Of course, people make policies, and the cocktail of personalities at the center of the policy-making process will be a key component in determining whether Obama is ultimately viewed as a creative change-agent in tune with his times or a disappointing vestige of the status quo, the latest American political leader to steer the ship of state by looking squarely in the rear-view mirror.

Especially because this president has already shown a strong pre-disposition to hands-on management and keeping his inner circle very small, picking people with proven access to him — people he already trusts — is so important. Rice’s closeness to the president is her strongest asset. The relationship between top officials and the president is critical in all administrations, not just those with a tight inner circle like this one. Indeed, in the American system, the power of top officials rises and falls with their relationship with the chief executive. We’ve seen secretaries of state with great resumes — hugely capable people — be hamstrung by not being sufficiently empowered by their boss. There are few better examples of this than the plight of Colin Powell, or the degree to which Condoleezza Rice’s close ties to President George W. Bush helped give her more clout, as foreign leaders knew she had the ear and trust of the boss in the way her more experienced immediate predecessor did not.

As it happens, I know Susan Rice pretty well. I knew her when we both served in the Clinton administration and then afterwards, when we worked together for a few years in a small consulting company here in Washington. I know just how hard-headed and prickly she can be. I’ve got the psychological scars to prove it. But I also know that she is extraordinarily hard-working, dedicated, ethical, and intelligent. As it happens, she can also be exceptionally funny and warm. The nonsense that she is somehow not qualified for the job is indefensible. Her White House, State Department, and U.N. experience is the equal of that of many of her recent predecessors, including Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and, arguably in foreign-policy terms, Hillary Clinton.

As for her temperament, raising it is pure sexism. Why is she called abrasive, when clearly, similar toughness was hailed in our most powerful and respected secretaries of state — from Henry Kissinger to George Shultz to James Baker? All had their battles. Even reputedly smooth diplomats like Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher could be all elbows behind the scenes.

For these reasons, if Obama wants Rice, he should be able to pick her. She’s not the only qualified candidate. The president would do well with many of the other names that have been floated, from current Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to former Under Secretary of State Nick Burns, from former Senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar to current Senator John Kerry. One of the best possible choices the president could make would be Tom Donilon, his national security advisor.

But frankly, if you asked me — and so far, no one has — Donilon should stay right where he is. The national security advisor slot is especially important in a close-hold White House like this one. He has the trust of the president, and has already demonstrated himself to be exceptionally capable at managing the policy formation process that is so critical to national security success. One of the most important reasons that one of Donilon’s models in the job, Brent Scowcroft, was perhaps America’s most successful national security advisor of all time was that he actually had done the job before. Donilon would get better, too, with another term in the job, and the president would be lucky to have him there. Continuity will be important given that the secretary of state, secretary of defense, and CIA director will all likely be new to their positions.

In the case of each of these jobs, as with the secretary of state, the critical X-factor will be the president. It is not who he picks so much as how he chooses to work with them that will determine the success or failure of his team. In our system, the most important national security position by far is that of the commander-in-chief. He can have a great team and fail to empower it, or set the wrong priorities, or fail to put his shoulder into the implementation of policy initiatives — and nothing will work.

For that reason, it is not so much which of the many qualified candidates for the top jobs he picks, but rather which Barack Obama shows up at morning security briefings, cabinet meetings, and in other settings that will determine whether the Obama administration rises to the exceptional challenges of the times in which we are living.

He should be given the latitude therefore to pick his own team. But he should recognize that it is not the Senate confirmation process that will be most important, but rather his own empowerment process once his people are in position. After all, it is not what these people have done in the past that matters, but whether he and his new team will be able to do things that have never been done before — whether he encourages and enables them to set aside the old playbook and to develop the new one we so urgently need.

About the Author

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. @djrothkopf

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